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Honesty would have been best policy for union officer

No one knows what James Brogan was thinking as he sat at his dining table in October 1993 and answered questions. But I bet it didn't have anything to do with the consequences of lying.

Too bad for him.Brogan was entertaining federal investigators who had knocked on the door of his New York City home unexpectedly and started asking whether he had received any cash gifts from a real estate management company called JRD Management Corp. The company employed union members and, as a union officer, Brogan was prohibited from accepting such gifts.

His one-word answer that day was "No." But a court later said the correct answer was "Yes." The distinction was important. Federal law explicitly outlaws false statements regarding any matter under a federal jurisdiction. Even though the person being investigated is not under oath, a lie can hinder an investigation, the reasoning goes.

By the time Brogan came to court, the statute of limitations had run out on his illegal payments, which he accepted back in 1988. The only thing the government could get him on was his lie, and it did.

Brogan and his attorneys have since fought their way to the Supreme Court, arguing that a simple "no," even a deliberately false one, shouldn't be considered a violation of the law. The way Brogan sees it, the law made him a "cornered suspect." He could either tell the truth and incriminate himself, lie and face prosecution under federal law, or remain silent and risk having that interpreted as suspicious behavior.

Life is tough. But then, being guilty is not supposed to be simple and carefree.

The truly remarkable thing is that several appeals courts, dating back to 1975, have been sympathetic to people like Brogan. What part of the word "no" don't they understand? Several, apparently. And here you thought the word was about as plain an unequivocal as they come. Or did you?

Lying has been a subject of much discussion in recent days. While pundits argue over what the president did and who he might have urged to make denials, the rest of us are having trouble getting a feel for how the public truly thinks about it. Is lying no longer considered a bad thing to do? Has it become a matter of personal taste, like art, music and clothing styles?

In the middle of all this soul searching, two University of Utah professors have been awarded a grant from the Department of Defense to study the way lying affects the body. If lying makes people afraid, it ought to also make their blood vessels constrict, force blood to rush into their vital organs and, as a result, make their skin temperature slightly cooler. A thermal camera ought to be able to detect these changes.

Perhaps someday special cameras will determine in a flash whether someone is telling the truth. Won't that make political press conferences interesting?

But really, what would be the point? The research may be coming along at the wrong time. Lie-detecting cameras have little value in the land of moral relativism. What, after all, would they be measuring? What camera can judge whether a liar is capable of coming up with a creative enough excuse?

Fortunately, there is good news to report. The Supreme Court decided last week to reject James Brogan's dizzying logic, voting 7-2 to uphold his conviction, which includes a nine-month prison sentence and a $4,000 fine. Brogan argued that his conviction violated the spirit of the Fifth Amendment, which protects a person against self-incrimination.

The court took a different view, namely that the Fifth Amendment doesn't give anyone a right to lie.

We all have to decide from time to time whether to tell the truth or lie - when the cashier gives us too much change, when we file expense reports or when we compute our income taxes.

Lies do come in different shades, but these shades are fairly close to the surface and deal exclusively with matters of consideration - suppressing an opinion that would be hurtful or hiding a Christmas present. Go too far below the surface and the shades turn immediately to black.

That may sound old-fashioned, but it is the only way orderly society can continue to operate. The question is whether that idea still has widespread support.

Is honesty always the best policy? I suspect Brogan will have some time now to quietly ponder that, as well as to reflect on that day back in '93 when investigators knocked on his door. Answering "yes" might not have made life much easier for him, but being honest as a union officer would have. That's the thing about honesty. People who practice it don't have to live in fear of consequences.