By Mannix Porterfield
Compelling a witness to swear, or affirm, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is already a device available to West Virginia lawmakers in quest of honest testimony before their committees.
This issue arose last week in Wheeling, where the Legislature met for interims in celebration of the state’s 150th birthday.
A new panel, the Senate Labor and Worker Safety Committee, wondered if it could call in witnesses and put them under oath and the threat of contempt for providing false testimony.
Actually, says Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, no new law is needed, since West Virginia Code 4-1-6 permits this in both chambers.
“It also does permit the Legislature to subpoena witnesses to appear and attend, and to bring documents with them as well,” Kessler said.
“It’s not used regularly, probably because of the fact that it has the tendency to maybe have a chilling effect on people willing to come and testify. They think that if they make a mistake they could be held for false swearing.”
Kessler said the last time in memory that the Legislature resorted to this subpoena power was in the aftermath of the Sago mine disaster.
Anyone knowingly providing false testimony is subject to penalties, he noted.
Under the same code section, a witness may take the 5th Amendment and be given immunity from prosecution, the Senate leader said.
Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, vice chairman of the Labor and Worker Safety Committee, was pleased to learn of the legal authority to summons witnesses and put them under oath.
“It’s good to know that,” he said Thursday.
“I tell you right now, we had some people lying to us last session.”
That, he said, came before a committee working on an insurance issue.
Hall said the ability to force testimony could be necessary, if the new committee takes up labor and safety matters that are controversial, given his suspicions that some people in the past obviously were shading the truth.
Kessler said the Legislature can take the same approach as Congress when a witness refuses to appear for a hearing and hold that person in contempt.
“We want to get the truth,” he said.
“Our job as policy makers is always to make sound policy, based on accurate information. If we believe someone is knowingly, either deceiving us or hiding things, not being forthcoming in order for us to pass a law and that may jeopardize the health or safety of a particular individual or a segment of society, then I think we have a duty to make sue we get accurate information.”
Kessler said he hopes the Legislature doesn’t find it necessary to use subpoena power.
“I like to have an open and free process where folks are willing to come forward and give us the truth,” he said.
“It’s usually done more in the case of investigatory matters where the health and public safety is at issue.”
Kessler, like Hall, has reason to believe that some folks simply haven’t been honest when testifying at committees.
“I’ve taken a lot of things with a grain of salt that I’ve heard over the years,” he said.
“You know when you hear it. It’s like obscenity. You know when you hear or see it, that it just ain’t so.”