Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in late June that a law prohibiting people from lying about receiving military honors was unconstitutional, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) has been working hard to push the issue into the spotlight, even getting the president involved.
A 32-year member of the Army National Guard, Brown co-sponsored a more narrow formulation of the Stolen Valor Act last fall after a veterans council in Middleborough, Mass., alerted him to the ongoing problem of phonies claiming imaginary military awards in order to gain power, prestige, or material benefit.
On Wednesday, Brown fired off a letter to President Barack Obama, asking Obama to throw his weight behind the issue.
“Justice (Stephen) Breyer wrote eloquently in the concurring Supreme Court opinion: ‘The nation cannot fully honor those who have sacrificed so much for their country’s honor unless those who claim to have received its military awards tell the truth,’” the letter read. “As our commander in chief, your support for this bill would help sustain its momentum.”
Unlike the original 2005 statute struck down by the court, the Stolen Valor Act of 2011 requires proof that stolen valor lies were used to profit financially or materially in order to prosecute the offense, and contains a de minimis clause exempting those who lie for negligible gain, such as a free drink at the bar. Sponsors believe that the new version will stand up to judicial scrutiny where the broader version failed as a threat to First Amendment rights.
Brown’s letter to the president was the culmination of several days of beating the drum on the issue.
Tuesday morning, Brown published a radio report promoting the bill on Youtube.
“Con artists who claim for themselves distinctions and awards they don’t deserve should be held accountable,” he said in the one-minute spot.
Later Tuesday, Brown joined the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) for an outdoor press conference to promote the legislation. Twenty-four hours later, the Senate bill, idle in committee since October, had picked up 27 new sponsors.
Brown has promoted a series of military and veterans’ bills in recent weeks, introducing a bill authorizing grants for the nonprofit Fisher House on June 27. He sponsored legislation to prohibit housing discrimination against veterans early last month after reading a Boston Herald report about a veteran turned away from a rental property because of his military status.
Locked in a hotly contested re-election race with liberal challenger Elizabeth Warren, Brown sidestepped a Human Events question at Tuesday’s press conference about whether stolen valor and other veterans’ issues were gaining traction with Massachusetts voters.
“The bottom line, it’s just wrong,” he said. “The Supreme Court said it was a First Amendment right, protected speech, but the bottom line is it’s just wrong and we need to address this so it doesn’t happen anymore.”
By Andrew Tilghman - Staff writer, Tuesday Jul 10, 2012
After years of rejecting the idea, the Pentagon is now considering the creation of a publicly accessible database of military valor awards as a way to deter military fakers.
The change of heart comes as some key lawmakers — including Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel — are moving to restore criminal penalties for people who wear medals that are not authorized.
The Pentagon’s internal review comes after the Supreme Court in June struck down the 2006 law that made it a federal crime to lie about receiving military medals. The high court said the law was violated the First Amendment right to free speech.
However, the justices acknowledged that preserving the integrity of military honors is important. They specifically suggested that the Defense Department help create an online database where the public could check up on politicians, job applicants and others who claim to be decorated heroes.
Now the Defense Department agrees that may be a good idea.
“We are exploring the option of standing up a database of valor awards,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Tuesday. “We have not arrived at a conclusion yet, but that process is ongoing.”
The study will be spearheaded by Erin Conaton, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Little said.
The decision to consider the database reverses the Pentagon’s longstanding dismissal of the idea. As recently as July 5, a top Pentagon official said there were no plans to revisit the matter based on a 2009 study that concluded such a database was not viable because of privacy concerns and missing personnel records that burned in a fire in 1973.
The scope of a potential database remains unclear. “We are talking about not just Medals of Honor, but a wide range and a very large number of other awards,” Little said.
Including a broader group of medals, such as service crosses and the Silver Star, would make the database more effective, but Little said the goal would be to ensure there is “integrity to the data.”
Under current military procedures, most valor awards are handled locally by individual commands and their records maintained locally.
The Supreme Court pointed to several nongovernment efforts to create a database, such as the Military Times Hall of Valor, which includes more than 100,000 citations of post-Civil War awards including the Medal of Honor and all of the second-tier valor awards, the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross.
Advocates for a large-scale database say the Pentagon is overstating the challenges.
Doug Sterner, the curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, estimates that compiling the kind of comprehensive database the Supreme Court referred to would cost no more than $10 million. That would cover the costs of hiring a team of data entry workers to type and digitalize existing unclassified government records.
On July 10, Webb, a Marine combat veteran who served in Vietnam, introduced the Military Service Integrity Act that would create criminal penalties for falsely claiming to have served in the military or been awarded a medal. To comply with the Supreme Court’s objections to the Stolen Valor Act, Webb’s bill could apply the penalties to people who try to secure a tangible benefit or personal gain from claiming military service or the award of a medal.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., introduced similar legislation last year, the Stolen Valor Act of 2011, in anticipation of the Supreme Court striking down the law.
“Profiting from the misrepresentation of military service or the award of a decoration or medal for personal gain undermines the value of service and is offensive to all who have stepped forward to serve our country in uniform,” Webb said in introducing his bill.
He said his legislation would be within the scope of the First Amendment.
The penalty for false claims for personal gain would be a fine, up to six months in jail, or both, Webb aides said. It would apply to falsely claiming to have served in the military or to have earned a medal, ribbon, decoration or other military device.
This would apply in several circumstances, such as lying about military service on a job resume, falsely running as a veteran for political office, filing for undeserved veterans’ benefits or any other action that would produce financial benefits or attempts to improve personal credibility.
Sandy, glad to see that Sen. Webb changed his position and supporting this. I am so pleased that Congress is addressing this. Thank you for this update and great news.