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Guest Commentary: Pitching an expedient white lie can create lasting skepticism

By MARC GUSTAFSON, Special to Lawyers Weekly

mgustafson@essexrichards.com

 

Anyone who has heard the tale of George Washington and his cherry tree knows well the damage dishonest acts inflict on credibility.

As Roger Clemens may someday attest (or not), damage to credibility may not be the only risk in forsaking the truth. Instead, brazenly believing you can deceive an adversary may create a long-lasting detractor whose antipathy outweighs any lost credibility.

As surely as you are aware Brett Favre will play football again this year, you know that Clemens was indicted for allegedly making 15 false statements under oath, including denying that he ever used steroids or human growth hormone and now faces up to 30 years in prison.

It might not just be the lies that trip up the once mighty pitcher, however. Anyone who watched the congressional hearings saw a defiant Clemens, who with the “help” of attorney Rusty Hardin, attacked the government’s key witness and accused one of his closest friends of misremembering things.

But Clemens’ bravado has clearly worked against him.

And it’s not like Clemens could be excused for missing the lesson of Washington’s cherry tree.

Prior to his testimony, Congressman Davis admonished Clemens to tell the truth. “Whatever you do, don’t lie,” he said. But was it the lies that actually trapped Clemens or was it his arrogant belief that he could somehow throw this 95 mph falsehood past Congress?

Clemens not only lost his credibility and with it a certain place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but so turned Congressman Henry Waxman and former Congressman Tom Davis against him that they asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, which ultimately resulted in Clemens’ indictment.

Creating such long-term and fervent enemies may equal if not surpass damage done to Clemens’ credibility.

Recently, I experienced this little-thought-of phenomenon in negotiating with a business associate.

In soliciting bids for a contract, my antagonist told what probably appeared to her to be a harmless lie in order to bolster her bargaining position. Common enough.

But my resentment of this seemingly meaningless act came not from the lie itself but from my opponent’s overconfident belief that she could somehow sneak this untruth by me.

Her credibility left like a curve ball that forgot to curve.

But in misrepresenting the facts, and more importantly, believing I wasn’t smart enough to uncover the ruse, my adversary created in me a lifelong cynic.

Just as the committee gave Clemens the opportunity to clear the air, I gave my newfound foe a chance to come clean. Like Clemens, she scoffed at my suggestion of falsehood, and further entrenched herself in her misrepresentation.

Those of us who do not throw, catch or run for a living should not overlook the lessons of Roger Clemens.

Our credibility is ours, but creating enemies and doubters can have far-reaching implications for those we represent. Cynics do not make for good business partners, bidders or investors.

So, if George Washington can be credited with teaching millions of school children to be honest, maybe Roger Clemens will be credited someday for teaching us to be honest as adults.

Editor’s note: Gustafson is counsel with Essex Richards in Charlotte. His practice focuses on general, commercial and employment litigation. He also counsels small businesses on lending, corporate and real estate matters.

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