In the ongoing Internal Revenue Service “scandal,” one IRS official, Lois Lerner, refused to answer questions in front of a Congressional committee. More precisely, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions that could be self-incriminating. A representative decided this should not be allowed, and has proposed legislation that would make invoking the Fifth Amendment grounds for immediate termination of any federal employee.
Now, most federal employment investigations and disputes do not necessarily involve potential criminal sanctions, but, as the IRS investigation and others have shown, there are many activities of federal employees that could be alleged to involve criminal sanctions. However, if you were innocent, why wouldn’t you want to “tell your story?” Well, it is never that simple.
The bottom line is that most people make very poor witnesses for their own defense. The average person believes that they do a good job in their work and become emotionally defensive and combative as they are asked very probing questions in a deposition or on cross examination in a trial.
The other reason why an innocent person in an investigation would refuse to answer is that there are thousands and thousands of statutes and regulations that carry some level of criminal sanctions. In many investigations, the person may be found to have violated not the item that they were originally being charged with, but some other thing related to some statement they made.
If you make a statement to investigators that you later realize was wrong, you could be charged with lying to federal agents or Congress, even if the underlying charge is groundless.
This bill, if made law, would add to the growing list of reasons why working for the federal government is becoming a less attractive proposition every day.
Source: The Hill, “GOP lawmaker proposes Lerner rule,” Pete Kasperowicz, June 21, 2013