Faster, Please!

You Just Heard Your Name on the Evening News. In a Scandal! WTF Do You Do?

You’re in the government, not in one of the plum jobs, but it’s a pretty important position.  In this case it doesn’t matter if you’re a career official or a political appointee.  What matters is that you’ve just been fingered by somebody, and a journalist or a reporter threw your name into the scandal septic tank.  You haven’t done anything wrong, in fact you pride yourself on doing The Right Thing.  So you’re angry and hurt, but not really worried.  After all, it’s easy to see you haven’t done anything wrong, and there’s not the slightest hint of evidence against you.  So you’re actually relieved when your department’s inspector general asks if she can drop by for a chat.

Wrong!  Don’t be relieved.  Be frightened.  Tell the IG, even if you think she’s a friend, that she’ll be hearing from your lawyer shortly.  DO NOT TALK TO HER OR ANY OTHER INVESTIGATOR BY YOURSELF.  Trust me,  I’ve been there, and I survived.  I had my very own special prosecutor for years in what became known as Iran-Contra, and even though I didn’t do anything wrong (as the prosecutor had to admit, although he weasily said “we can’t find anything wrong”), lots of my colleagues, who likewise didn’t do anything wrong, were ruined.  Some of them incredibly ended up pleading guilty to crimes or misdemeanors they didn’t actually commit, to escape the crushing expenses of standing trial.

So listen carefully.  Don’t listen to anybody who hasn’t been through one of these things.  They have their own rules, and some of them are totally counter-intuitive.

Get a lawyer.  Yes, I know you haven’t done anything wrong, but you need that lawyer to make sure that you don’t make a fatal mistake now.  It is totally wrong to think “I’ve got no reason to worry about answering questions.”  You should be terrified at the very thought of answering questions, because it turns out that “making a false statement” can be a criminal act.  And it’s easy to make a false statement.  Your memory is imperfect, even if you’re young (I was in my forties and had a fabulous memory, and yet when I wrote out a timeline of everything that I had done for my lawyers, there were errors, including one whopper, which they caught).  There are ways to protect yourself against failures of memory, and a decent attorney knows them.  You need help.

If you doubt this, ask Scooter Libby.  He was a lawyer, quite a good one.  He had a friendly chat with a couple of guys from the FBI, and was prosecuted, convicted, disbarred, and shamed.  Note that the “guilty” party, the one who committed the presumed crime the FBI was supposed to be investigating, wasn’t even indicted.  His name is Richard Armitage, he was Colin Powell’s deputy, and he’s a Washingtonian in very good standing today.

The investigators, especially if they are working for prosecutors or for Congress, are looking for scalps.  They may also be interested in the truth, but that’s secondary.  Their rewards depend on scalps, and you’ve got one.  They are intent on getting it, and they’ll use all manner of cunning to carve it off your skull.

You say you can’t afford a lawyer?  Not to worry;  in big Washington scandal investigations (of which three or four may soon be empowered) every major law firm wants to play.  Pro bono (free) legal representation can usually be found.  At a minimum you’ll get a substantial discount.  Once you’ve got one, he’ll tell you not to discuss the case with anyone.  Not with media people, not with colleagues, not with friends. (By the way, you’re about to discover who your friends aren’t.  You don’t really know–yet–the list of names.  But you will, soon enough.  This is one of the side benefits of going through scandalmania, and it will serve you in good stead for years to come.  They won’t be able to trick you any more).  Just listen to the big guys, including the president and various press spokesthings.  They say “sorry there’s a criminal investigation on, I can’t discuss it.”  Memorize those words.

This is not a hard and fast rule, however.  It’s only a 90% rule.  Most all the lawyers think the best way to survive is to wrap yourself in a cloak of invisibility.  They are  sometimes wrong about this, you’ll have to judge it yourself, and don’t hesitate to argue it out with them.  My lawyer–Jim Woolsey, who was later director of central intelligence, and has been a great success at everything he ever did–wanted me to clam up.  I thought that was wrong, and I convinced him.  He and his colleagues told me what I could say and what I couldn’t, and I not only went on television shows and answered journalists’ questions, I demanded to testify.  The investigators refused.  Apparently they thought that anyone so eager to testify must be dangerous to their mission.

So it can be your call.  But the lawyers generally know best.

Then there’s the question of daily life.  If you’re like me, there is grave danger in watching news broadcasts;  I was at risk of bursting a vessel.  So I stopped watching the news–which was invariably wrong about anything I knew first hand–and all the talk shows.  That proved beneficial in the long run, and I haven’t watched any of those shows since 1987.  It turns out that if anything important happens, you’ll hear about it anyway; you don’t have to see it then and there.

I got a lot of comfort from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, especially when he said “go ahead, make my day,” and I imagined him saying it to the prosecutors.  You can get the DVDs, and no doubt there are contemporary shows and movies that will produce the same catharsis.  Comedy is also good.  Mel Brooks is very good.  Some people like Monty Python, or the Marx Brothers.  Whatever makes you laugh…

Above all, keep reminding yourself that it will pass, and if the investigations are reasonably thorough, you’ll survive.  The scandals that are most dangerous to the innocent are short, a few slanderous stories and then poof!  Written forever into your bio at Wikipedia.  These scandals look like they may have a fairly long run, which will be good for you.

There you go.  No charge.  Welcome to the community of the politically afflicted.  It’s a great learning moment, and once you’re cleared, you acquire a sort of immunity.  The investigators will figure there’s no future in targeting you, when there are always so many potential victims.  So get through it and start drawing your benefits.