Government agencies can punish employees who lie while being investigated for employment-related misconduct, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The unanimous court decision overturned rulings in five separate cases that had barred federal agencies from stiffening the disciplinary action taken against wayward employees based on false statements they made when questioned about their misconduct.Although the decision dealt specifically with federal employees only, its rationale appeared to affect all state and local government employees as well.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court that nothing in the Constitution nor any federal law bars such punishment.
"A citizen may decline to answer the question, or answer it honestly, but he cannot with impunity knowingly and willfully answer with a falsehood," Rehnquist said.
When the cases were argued last month, Rehnquist had observed from the bench that the bottom line seemed simple. "The moral of this is don't lie," the chief justice had suggested.
In Wednesday's decision, Rehnquist said federal employees who fear they may expose themselves to criminal prosecution if they answer questions about their work-related conduct can exercise their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
But agencies are free, when it comes to dishing out non-criminal discipline, to take such silence into consideration, he said. A 1976 Supreme Court decision said adverse inferences can be drawn against people who refuse to testify in civil, or non-criminal, cases.
In each of the five cases, the federal Merit Systems Protection Board and a federal appeals court disallowed extra punishment based on an employee's false statements. Punishments were reduced in each after false-statement sanctions were disallowed.
Presumably, the respective agencies now will be able to reinstate the harsher punishments.
The Department of Veterans Affairs had wanted to fire Jeanette Walsh, an employee at a St. Cloud, Minn., medical center, for having sex with a patient. Her punishment was dropped to a 90-day suspen-sion.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing wanted to fire police officer Lester Erickson Jr. for instigating someone to make a harassing telephone call. He got a 15-day suspension.
Sharon Kye, who works for the Defense Logistics Agency, was found to have misused a government credit card. Her employer sought to fire her but the punishment ended up being a 45-day suspension.