Steve Chapman

If it were a crime to venture onto Capitol Hill to reveal yourself as a self-absorbed liar with an inability to admit mistakes, there would be tumbleweeds blowing through the vacant halls of Congress. Fortunately for members of the legislative branch, that is not a crime. Unless your name is Roger Clemens.

The eccentric baseball legend is not one to let people disparage him without a forceful response, any more than he was one to let batters crowd the plate without retaliation. A couple of years ago, after being accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, he voluntarily appeared before a House committee to heap scorn on the charge.

His denial was not very convincing, since other witnesses -- notably longtime teammate Andy Pettitte -- had given statements contradicting him. He was repeatedly reminded by skeptical interrogators that he was under oath. Democratic Chairman Henry Waxman and ranking Republican Tom Davis joined together afterward to advise the Justice Department that "significant questions have been raised about Mr. Clemens' truthfulness."

But never mind if anyone believed him, or if his alleged dissembling made any difference on anything. Federal prosecutors got him indicted for perjury, and he faces trial on charges that carry penalties of up to 30 years in prison.

It's possible to imagine less worthy uses of prosecutorial resources, but not many. Indictments for perjury unaccompanied by other criminal charges are rare, usually employed only when a statute of limitations makes it impossible to prosecute the accused for more significant felonies.

The Rocket, for some reason, is not charged with violating federal law by possessing or using illegal substances. He is charged merely with lying to members of Congress.

Members of Congress, of course, have been known to lie to their constituents and to each other, without fear of going to prison. And it's hard to see what would be lost if Clemens' sworn denial were written off as a risible burst of hot air.

United States attorneys face a nearly endless array of mischief and mayhem. Because of limited resources, they cannot prosecute everyone who breaks the law. Yet those in charge of prosecutions for the nation's capital chose to give priority to an offender who presents no threat to public safety and whose real crime was to disrespect a powerful group of elected officials.

"It's hard for me to see the federal interest in prosecuting Clemens in this kind of case," says Ron Safer, a former assistant U.S. attorney. "Cases that are worthy of prosecution are turned down every day because the federal interest is insufficient."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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