Two cases illustrate shades of untruths, consequences

This Just In...

February 01, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

And so we come to the difference between Bill Clinton, the man from Hope, and Greg Savoy, the man from Honda. One man was accused of lying under oath in connection with a civil suit; the other was accused of lying under oath in connection with a civil suit. One allegedly lied about cars, the other about sex. But a lie is a lie, no? Savoy was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice late Friday afternoon in federal court in Baltimore. If the president of the United States is not above the law, if the law that applies to Greg Savoy applies to Bill Clinton, then Bill Clinton should be out on his ear. Right?

Savoy lost his job in New Jersey because of what he did.

Clinton should lose his job in Washington, shouldn't he?

Savoy might go to jail for what he did. Should Clinton?

A little background:

Greg Savoy was a district sales manager for Honda, based in Morristown, N.J.

A few years ago, dozens of car dealers across the country sued his company, American Honda Motor Co., claiming damages because they refused to pay bribes to Honda officials to get the hot-selling models they needed to stay competitive. They claimed to have lost millions because of a long-standing scheme that gave a big edge to competitors who willingly bribed Honda executives.

Oddly, while Honda was being sued by the so-called "honest dealers" in the mid-1990s, it was still doing business with them.

During litigation in 1997, the "honest dealers" claimed they were being further harmed by Honda because of their class action suit against the company. The dealers believed that, in retaliation, Honda executives were withholding certain allotments of desirable cars.

The "honest dealers" asked a federal judge in Baltimore, overseeing the big civil suit here, to order Honda to stop with the payback business. They filed statements by a New Jersey car dealer named Jeffrey Dorf. Dorf claimed that his district sales manager, our boy Savoy, had told him, in so many words, that Honda was retaliating. Savoy suggested Dorf get out of the lawsuit.

After that statement went on file in U.S. District Court here, Honda answered with declarations of denial from Savoy. Savoy swore, in very clear language, that he knew nothing about Honda withholding cars from any dealer.

Alas, what Savoy didn't know was that Dorf had slipped a small tape recorder into his jacket pocket. During two conversations - one at his dealership in Tenafly, N.J., the other at a deli around the corner - Dorf had recorded Savoy's words. (Dorf's slick action was legal in New Jersey.)

Members of the jury in Savoy's criminal trial listened to the tapes last week. They compared what they heard with the statements Savoy had filed in 1997. A day later, they found him guilty of perjury and obstruction.

Savoy, who had lost his job with Honda, could be sentenced to five years in prison and fined $250,000.

It's good the government went after him to prove that truth is the foundation of justice and that violations of oaths cannot be tolerated - and that you really shouldn't lie when the chief judge, a former federal prosecutor, is involved in your case.

But I'm sitting here today, wondering what the differences are between Bill Clinton and Greg Savoy.

There are some.

Savoy seemed to be acting as a loyal corporate soldier, trying to protect the company (and himself), when he uttered his lies. Clinton, on the other hand, seemed to be trying to protect his personal life and his marriage, though he might also have been trying to protect his wallet. (Paula Corbin Jones' original lawsuit sought $700,000 in damages.)

Another difference, and maybe the most important one, if you listen to legal experts: The Jones sexual misconduct case was later thrown out by a federal judge in Arkansas; the case against Honda wasn't. Last fall, Honda agreed to pay nearly $330 million to 1,800 dealers. The settlement of the class action suit came more than a year after Greg Savoy's declarations to the court. So his perjury had occurred at a time when the case was still pending; his testimony, however tangential, could have played a role in the outcome. Clinton's alleged perjury in the Jones deposition - "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her" - was supposedly no big deal because the case was later dismissed. It's his allegedly perjurious testimony before the Starr grand jury, six months later, that got him impeached.

Another distinction: The perjury in Savoy's statements, written and signed, was clear - because of his statements on tape. Clinton's statements under oath are apparently open to interpretation - that "sexual relations" business - more sidestep than outright lie, or so his defenders claim.

Clinton was the target of a long investigation, an expensive witch hunt. Savoy got caught in a lie with a tape recording, and the government, as a matter of course, stepped into the case when Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz referred it to the U.S. attorney's office for investigation.

All these fine distinctions seem like a lot of lawyer mumbo, I know. (And I pulled it off without benefit of a law degree.) But I guess those are factors you have to consider in our comparison.

You should have seen Savoy sitting at the defense table last week. A pretty pathetic picture. "Waiting tables or something like that," someone familiar with him said, when I asked what Savoy has been doing since Honda canned him.

He's 31 years old, married, looking at jail for uttering four false statements when he should have told the truth.

There are differences between Bill Clinton and Greg Savoy. But not very big ones.

Pub Date: 2/01/99

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