Possible criminal violations by the memo forger

(if the memos were indeed forged): As I’d mentioned a few days ago, it’s surprisingly hard to find laws that prohibit this sort of forgery. Using false statements, including forgeries, to get money or many other valuable things is surely illegal. But the law generally does not criminalize lies as such, when what you’re trying to get using the lies is a change in another’s political opinion, or for that matter likely vote. Maybe that’s right and maybe it’s wrong, but there it is. I noted a couple of state misdemeanor statutes that bar certain false statements during election campaigns, but they seem like the exception rather than the rule (though perhaps they could be used against this very forger).

Matt (Stop the Bleating!) points to one possible alternative, 18 U.S.C. sec. 912, which says that “Whoever falsely assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the United States or any department, agency or officer thereof, and acts as such, or in such pretended character demands or obtains any money . . . or thing of value, shall be [punished].” But this requires not just impersonation but also “act[ing]” as the officer, and lower court decisions, the Justice Department’s interpretation, and an inference from the text of the statute (the “demands or obtains” clause, which would be superfluous if any impersonation was per se punishable as “act[ing]”) suggest that impersonation isn’t enough. (Matt talks more about this, and also explains why the statute covers more than just in-person impersonation.)

Troy Hinrichs points to Texas Penal Code sec. 32.21, which forbids “forg[ing] a writing with intent to defraud or harm another” (emphasis added); Texas Penal Code sec. 1.07 defines “harm” to mean “anything reasonably regarded as loss, disadvantage, or injury, including harm to another person in whose welfare the person affected is interested.” Reputational harm would probably qualify, but harm in the sense of becoming deluded about some historical fact and voting the wrong way might not. I doubt therefore that if the writing were forged outside Texas, the forgery would be a crime in Texas, even if Bush (the harmed party) is still a Texas citizen.

Markham Pyle and Simon Stevens point to Texas Penal Code sec. 37.10, which seems to be more clearly on point, since it criminalizes (among other things) “mak[ing], present[ing], or us[ing] any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record.” That probably covers things, so long as the memos are treated as “governmental record[s],” though again it’s not clear whether Texas would have jurisdiction simply because the records purport to be Texas records (probably, but I’m not sure).

Another reader pointed to this OpinionJournal story, which discusses a seemingly similar incident:

In 1997 [“60 Minutes”] broadcast a report alleging that U.S. Customs Service inspectors looked the other way as drugs crossed the Mexican border at San Diego. The story’s prize exhibit was a memo from Rudy Comacho, head of the San Diego customs office, ordering that vehicles belonging to one trucking company should be given special leniency in crossing the border. The memo was given to “60 Minutes” by Mike Horner, a former customs inspector who had left the service five years earlier. When asked by CBS for additional proof, he sent another copy with an official stamp on it.

CBS did not interview Mr. Camacho for its story. “It was horrible for him,” says Bill Anthony, at the time head of public affairs for the Customs Service. “For 18 months, internal affairs and the Secret Service had him under a cloud while they established that Horner had forged the document out of bitterness over how he’d been treated.” In 2000, Mr. Horner admitted he forged the memo “for media exposure” and was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison. . . .

Sounds on point, but a 2000 news story reports that Horner “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct a U.S. Senate investigation and to lying to the FBI agents who investigated the memorandum’s origin” — what got him wasn’t the forgery itself, but the interference with a particular government investigation.

So forgery for purposes of a political hoax (rather than to get money) seems safer than one might have at first thought, though, kids, don’t try it at home . . . .

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