Windfall Profits Tax Part 1: Oil Executives Evade Oath-taking

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Last month, a joint Senate committee invited five executives from major oil companies-- Exxonmobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell--to testify at a hearing on oil industry profits.

Now eight Democratic Senators have asked the Justice Department to investigate whether these oil executives lied in their November 9 testimony.

At the time, quite a few people-- including senators on the joint committee--made a fuss over the fact that Committee Chairman Ted Stevens chose not to swear the executives in. To my untrained legal eye, Stevens' stated reason for not doing so-- that lying to the committee would be illegal whether these guys took an oath or not--seems legit. Basically what Stevens is saying is that the only real reason to make these guys swear an oath is for the sake of posturing.

[But, to be clear, I have no idea whether that's the only point of requiring people testifying to take an oath. Is there really NO difference, for legal purposes, whether you've been sworn in or not when you lie to a Congressional committee? Anyone? As events have unfolded since the November 9 testimony, it's becoming clear that the answer to this legal question may matter.]

At any rate, the transcript from the very beginning of the hearing, in which Senator Maria Cantwell confronts Committee Chair Stevens about his refusal to swear the execs in, is riveting:

SEN. STEVENS: Could we ask the witnesses to sit down, please? (Pause.)(Strikes gavel.) If I may, there's -- the question's been raised, before we start the hearing -- the question whether Senator Domenici and I should administer oaths to these witnesses at today's hearings was raised by a letter that I received this morning at 8:10 a.m, after it was delivered to the press. As a matter of fact, there's a story in a Seattle paper about the request having been denied already.I remind the witnesses, as well a the members of this -- these committees, federal law makes it a crime to provide false testimony. Specifically, Section 1001 of Title XVIII provides the impertinent (sic) part. "Whoever in any manner within the jurisdiction of the legislative branch of the government of the United States knowingly or willfully makes any material false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation shall be fined under this title or be imprisoned not more than five years, or both."I have reviewed the rules of the Senate and the rules of the Commerce and Energy Committees in effect in this Congress, and the relevant provisions of Title II of the United States Code. There is -- could we have quiet, please? (Strikes gavel.) There is nothing in the standing rules of our committee rules or the Senate which requires witnesses to be sworn. The statute has the position that everyone before the -- appearing before the Congress is in fact under oath.These witnesses accepted the invitation to appear before our committees voluntarily. They are aware that making false statements and testimony is a violation of federal law, whether or not an oath has been administered. I shall not administer an oath today.
SEN. STEVENS: And we look forward to questions.Senator Cantwell?
SEN. CANTWELL: Mr. Chairman, I
did send you a letter, cosigned by eight of my colleagues, and asking that the witnesses be sworn in. This rare joint hearing --
SEN. STEVENS: I did not yield
to make statement. We're ready to go. We have a statement process. Do you have any --
SEN. CANTWELL: Mr. Chairman, I would like the committee to vote on whether we swear witnesses --
SEN. STEVENS: There will be no vote. That's not in order at all. It's not part of the rules that any vote can be taken to administer an oath. This is a decision of the chairman, and I have made that decision.
SEN. CANTWELL: Mr. Chairman, I move that we swear in the witnesses.
SEN. STEVENS: And I rule that out of order.
SEN. : I second the motion.
SEN. STEVENS: Thank you very much. That's the last we're going to hear about that because it's out of order.
SEN. CANTWELL: Mr. Chairman? Mr. Chairman? Could I just ask just for a little clarification here? If a senator makes this request and there's a second, why wouldn't we have a vote on that?
SEN. STEVENS: Because you can't vote to put in the rules something that's not there.
SEN. CANTWELL: Mr. Chairman --
SEN. STEVENS: This is not a business meeting. There's no way to put this into the rules. This is a matter for the chairman to decide, and I've made the decision. Now --
SEN. CANTWELL: Only a chairman --
SEN. : Mr. Chairman, I want to say I'm --
SEN. STEVENS: Pardon me. It specifically says in the rules the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House or a chairman of any committee can make the decision.

At the end of the day, this argument could be nothing more than political window dressing. But if there are legal ramifications to these guys not getting sworn in, then Stevens needs to answer some questions about why he chose to leave the oil execs unsworn.
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