Liars on parade

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, sometimes mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential hopeful in 2008, got caught in another lie this week.

For nearly 40 years, Richardson, a high school baseball star, claimed he was a “draft pick” by the Kansas City A’s. He used the claim in campaign literature when he ran for Congress. The White House reported it as fact when Bill Clinton named him U.N. Ambassador in 1997. A number of news organizations, including the Associated Press and The Washington Post, reported it without ever checking to see if it was true.

But the Albuquerque Journal decided recently to check the accuracy of the baseball draft story. It wasn’t true and Richardson admitted the fabrication in a press conference this week, saying he had been told he was a “draft consideration” and that, to him, meant he was a draft pick.

“After being notified of the situation and after researching the matter … I came to the conclusion that I was not drafted by the A’s,” Richardson admitted.

And that might be a forgivable oversight if Bill Richardson did not have a history of lying about his past.

In 1980, when he came close to upsetting veteran New Mexico Congressman Manuel Lujan in a close race, Richardson claimed in his campaign literature that he was a “foreign policy” advisor to Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota. An investigation, again by the Albuquerque Journal, revealed he was an intern in the Senator’s office.

In 1982, when Richardson won a seat in New Mexico’s newly-created Third Congressional District, he claimed to have authored a number of “key policy papers” on foreign policy for think tanks. After the election, it turned out not one of the “key policy papers” existed.

But lying on your resume hasn’t kept Bill Richardson from success in politics. Perhaps that’s because embellishing your past is a common practice among our elected leaders. And lying is not limited to the current questions over whether or not President Bush told the truth about the reasons for invading Iraq or whether or not President Clinton lied about nailing White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

In 1979, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) told a roundtable sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Congressional Caucus that, as a Navy pilot, he spent a year in Vietnam and “I was flying F-4s and F-8s on combat air patrols and photo-reconnaissance support missions.” Turns out Harkin was stationed in Japan during Vietnam and saw no combat service.

Lying, however, is not limited to our public officials. A Knight-Ridder-Tribune Business News survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management discovered that more than 60% of the 373 human resource professionals who responded found inaccuracies on resumes. A Korn/Ferry online survey said 44.7% of their 300 respondents said they believed resume fraud among executives is increasing.

Recently fired Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown lied on his resume and that fakery, along with the typical cronyism of politics, helped him land a job where we oversaw the debacle of botched Hurricane Katrina Relief. Now Brown is launching a “disaster planning” consulting firm.

“Most lying is pragmatic,” says Professor Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University. “The more situational pressure someone is under, the more apt they are to lie. Sometimes people believe that everybody else is cheating. In the case of resumes, people may think that everybody else is inflating their background. So to be competitive, they have to do it as well.”

In real life, lying on a resume can have consequences:

  • George O’Leary, Notre Dame’s football coach, claimed a master’s degree in education from New York University. He lied and is no longer at Notre Dame.
  • Ram Kumar, research director of Institutional Shareholder Services, claimed a law degree from UCLA. He lied and he’s gone.
  • Kenneth Lonchar, CFO of Veritas Software,  said he had an M.B.A. from Stanford. He didn’t and “resigned.”
  • Bryan Mitchell, chairman and CEO of MCG Capital, claimed a bachelor’s degree in economics from Syracuse. When the company’s board found out the claim was bogus, the fired him and revoked two years worth of bonuses.
  • Ron Zarrella, CEO of Bausch & Lomb, claimed an M.B.A. from NYU. It was fake and he forfeited a million dollar bonus.

But politics is not real life and lying about your past is not the kiss of death. Bill Richardson was first caught lying in 1980 but still served several terms in Congress, got an U.N. Ambassador’s gig and the governorship. Tom Harkin lied about his Vietnam service and still sits in the Senate. The latest polls show a vast majority of Americans believe President George W. Bush lied about the reasons for invading Iraq.