Beware: Testifying before a legislative panel? Then make sure ‘facts’ are true

DOVER — Not many people are aware that lying to the General Assembly in an official setting is a crime.

Now, some Republicans want to expand that offense.

Legislation that would make it a crime to deliberately present false information when testifying in a legislative committee was debated last week, although it did not get out of the committee where it was being heard.

Currently, state law contains a provision allowing the state to prosecute anyone who “intentionally makes a false statement or affirms the truth of a false statement previously made, knowing it to be false or not believing it to be true, while giving testimony,” including on the floor of the General Assembly.

Sen. Bryant Richardson’s bill would expand the law to cover committee hearings. The Seaford Republican said he was motivated after pro-choice advocates shared what he described as out-of-date and biased information at a March hearing for a bill to limit abortion.

“False testimony, intentional or not, can have serious negative consequences. Those testifying before a committee have a responsibility to make sure they have checked their facts,” he wrote in a newsletter last month.

“Legislators must demand the most current and accurate information available when making decisions, particularly life and death decisions.”

While Sen. Richardson told members of the Senate Judicial Committee the measure would help prevent people trying to intentionally mislead lawmakers, some of his colleagues have expressed concerns about its implications.

Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat, said that just the week before a Republican senator inadvertently presented false information when he made a mathematical error in calculating what percentage of the state budget $2.8 million is.

While his error was unintentional, someone who makes a similar mistake before a committee could have to prove they were not lying but were simply in error, Sen. Townsend said.

“In court all the time you have one person saying one thing, you have one person saying another thing,” he said.

The bill is trying to solve a problem but the solution it presents is a “very dangerous thing to do in a world where truth can be very uncertain sometimes,” he told the committee.

Sen. Dave Lawson, a Republican from Marydel, responded that legislators should do what they can to ensure they are presented with the most accurate data and with facts rather than opinions.

“I know for a fact people have stood in front of me and absolutely lied,” he said.

The bill requires someone deliberately try to mislead legislators, he noted, with Sen. Richardson arguing it should generally be easy to tell whether a falsehood was presented accidentally or not.

In 2015, then Senate President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins accused a National Rifle Association lobby of lying to the Senate. Such an offense would have been a felony, although nothing came of the remark.

Schedule

Lawmakers will be enjoying a (well-deserved?) break over the next two weeks, the last one some members will get until July.

After returning May 7, the General Assembly is in for two weeks before another two-week reprieve. During that time, the Joint Finance Committee will meet for what’s referred to as “markup,” where the 12 legislators on the committee implement changes to the governor’s January budget recommendations. During the two weeks of markup, JFC will take steps toward finalizing it, although that won’t be done until the end of June.

The full legislature will meet on June 4 and all throughout June, culminating with the final regularly scheduled day on June 30, which falls on a Sunday this year. Fingers crossed everything is finished well before the sun comes up on July 1 this year.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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