Lying To The Law: The Lochte Lesson

The potential for handcuffs comes into play when the gens d’armes are sent on a wild goose chase.

The dust has now begun to settle.  And there’s no great news: Ryan Lochte is a juvenile.

Maybe, despite his six golds, he was depressed seeing himself as second fiddle to Michael Phelps, and wanted to lap him in the public eye ― albeit not in a pool. Maybe too much hair dye.

Still, for one reason or another, Lochte chose to very publicly make himself the most important cult figure in Rio since The Girl From Ipanema, herself.  Why?  Who knows? Probably only someone with a Twitter feed could explain it to a dinosaur (like me).  One thing is for certain: fame is not a baptism. One’s penchant for bad behavior doesn’t disappear – he isn’t purified – simply because he can jump into a pool and swim faster than almost anyone alive.  Nor does one get to be excused for bad behavior merely because they are one of the best.

It’s not altogether clear but it looks like the story came to light when Lochte lied to his own mother, who repeated that lie to the media.   It does seem clear, however, that his story was pre-emptive – an effort to cover up his own misconduct. And his teammates participated. They presented a story that they were robbed at gunpoint by security guard rent-a-cops, (after, as they apparently left out, they wrecked a men’s room at a Rio gas station following an after-hours drunken binge). Yes, it does appear as if a gun was drawn, and it does appear as if the swimmers gave over money.  But it also appears that they lied (they might say “over-exaggerated” or “embellished”) when telling their version of events. 

Now, lying to Olympics officials about a supposed holdup by police after (what was apparently) a free-wheeling urinating display and men’s room vandalism, is not a crime.  Nor, even if venued in Brazil, is lying to NBC’s Matt Lauer or Billy Bush – as Lochte apparently did – or (hypothetically) even Bill O’Reilly of Fox. If it were, virtually every star and politician in America would be behind bars.  But lying to the authorities is a crime, pretty much everywhere, with potentially criminal consequences.

Lochte has lost endorsements because of the public outcry over his behavior and might suffer penalties (or conceivably a bar or suspension) at the hands of the Olympic Committee for his public BS story. But, it is extremely unlikely he will be extradited from the U.S. And it is possible Brazil will never charge him with obstruction of justice.  Although it is also possible Lochte will never  be able to go back to Brazil unless this gets cleared up or he somehow “pays his dues” there. He certainly gave Rio a black eye that it simply didn’t need amid a (valid) public perception that Rio is simply unsafe for tourists.

But the real issue for the rest of us is: what would have happened if he, or one of us, had engaged in the same behavior at home – here?  Meaning, what is the criminal consequence for lying to law enforcement? It is true that citizens frequently lie to the police, and typically don’t get prosecuted for the crime of lying: “I wasn’t speeding, officer.”  But lying to the police is a crime.  Think of Lindsay Lohan, another media figure who, like Lochte, craves favorable attention which may, at bottom, be the cause of both of their problems.  She was charged with and pleaded no contest to providing false information to the police when she lied about whether she, rather than someone else, was driving when her Porsche catapulted into an 18-wheeler.   

The problem typically lies, and the potential for handcuffs comes into play, when the gens d’armes are sent on a wild goose chase – cavalierly sent in the direction of wasting precious police hours interviewing innocent “perps.”  And it doesn’t matter whether the law enforcement officers in question are federal, state or local, although, obviously, lying to the federal authorities will be far worse inasmuch as the mere false statement to federal law officers is a stand-alone federal felony. Viz., Martha Stewart – convicted and jailed for her false statements to the feds (obstruction of justice) about her alleged insider trading, with no conviction for the trading conduct itself.

Now, it’s true. It is rare that a minor lying episode – which the Lochte incident is, stripped away from the hoopla – results in an investigation and full-on prosecution (at least in the U.S.).  Stewart or Scooter Libby – indicted for making false statements or perjury – were big deal cases, in big deal scandals.  There are indeed instances where the police or prosecutors get their noses bent out of joint because of false police reports. But why risk it?  Why invite law enforcement attention to cover up what may have happened?  Why get the police riled up enough for your actions to have consequences for the lies themselves?  This, especially when the incident, albeit embarrassing, may not be such a big deal but for the lie. 

Lochte would not be suffering public obloquy and other non-criminal (but financially serious) consequences if NBC News alone, without the police input, was skeptical about internal and external inconsistencies in the stories presented about what actually happened. The Lochte fallout is because the Rio police (under the gun due to a terrible crime rate) decided that they didn’t believe Lochte and his teammates, even if, ultimately, they are not charged with a crime.

In America, at least, you don’t have to talk to the authorities if you don’t want to.  One can posit that Martha Stewart would never have gone to jail if she had remained silent – presumably as was her attorneys’ advice.  If the Lochte incident happened here and the police wanted to question him, and he intended to stick to his “over-exaggerated” story, he could have simply told them to “jump in the lake” (although presumably, even Lochte would not have used that particular expression, despite the fact that swimming is his game).  Would that have ended the inquiry?  We can’t know – particularly given Lochte’s apparent affection for the spotlight.

“It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble” famously noted Howard Baker, President Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff.  And Lochte makes that as clear as can be!

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