After fury in steroid hearings, Congress quiet on Clemens trial

As former pitching ace Roger Clemens stands trial for lying to Congress, his inquisitors in the Capitol have gone quiet.

In February 2008, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and 20 other members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee interrogated Clemens for three-and-a-half hours about allegations of steroid use in a nationally televised hearing.

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When Clemens’s testimony contradicted the account of his former trainer, Brian McNamee, and a former teammate, Andy Pettite, the committee referred the case to the Justice Department, and a grand jury indicted the flame-thrower on charges of perjury, making false statements and obstruction of Congress.

Clemen’s trial opened Wednesday in a federal court just blocks from the Capitol, but the lawmakers who handed him over to the FBI have barely taken notice. Their silence is a striking departure from three years ago, when members dismissed charges of grandstanding to hold high-profile hearings on performance-enhancing drugs in sports.

“I’ve got other things on my mind,” said Waxman, who as chairman of the oversight panel penned the letter, along with then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), that prompted the criminal investigation.

When prosecutors announced the charges against Clemens a year ago, they cited the importance of sending the message that citizens cannot lie to Congress.

“I take it as a very serious matter if people come before Congress and don’t tell the truth,” Waxman said in an interview. “They have a obligation to respond to questions honestly and fairly and accurately to the best of their ability.”

When asked if he hoped the jury will convict Clemens, Waxman demurred. “That’s not my judgement,” he said.

Attorneys for Clemens have gone after Congress in pre-trial motions, questioning the legitimacy of its hearings on steroid use in baseball. The arguments amount to the legal equivalent of public criticism lawmakers faced at the time - that Congress had no business investigating the issue in the first place.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), one of the most aggressive questioners of Clemens and other baseball stars who testified to Congress about steroids, said he was reluctant to comment on the case because he didn’t want to jeopardize the integrity of the trial.

He spoke out, however, on the need to enforce the oath that witnesses take. “It’s important because it allows us to do our job,” Cummings said. “All of the witnesses have to be sworn, and that oath should mean something. Or why do it?”

“I just want Mr. Clemens to have a fair trial,” he added.

The trial is perhaps most awkward for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is now the chairman of the oversight committee but who sharply criticized Waxman’s handling of the Clemens hearing three years ago.

“I don’t believe that we were deceived by Roger Clemens,” Issa said in an interview this week. “I don’t believe that his false testimony when he gave it was anything other than Henry Waxman trapping him into perjury.”

Clemens testified before the panel alongside his chief accuser, McNamee. During the questioning, Issa and other Republicans assailed McNamee’s credibility after he admitting to lying previously about his interactions with Clemens and his involvement with steroids.

Issa said Waxman should not have invited Clemens to testify under oath when he knew that his account would not be truthful. “I believe that we should be very careful when we bring people and we have some questions where we already know the answer,” Issa said. “Because to be deceived is not to be lied to. To be deceived is to act on somebody’s lie as though it’s the truth. So that deeply does concern me.”

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It is unclear what involvement, if any, the committee will have in the trial. A top aide to Waxman, Phil Barnett, is a potential witness in the case, but he nows works alongside the congressman in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Attorneys for Clemens want the House to turn over audio tapes from a deposition Clemens gave before his public testimony. The House counsel’s office has refused, citing a constitutional provision relating to the separation of powers.

Issa said neither he nor his immediate predecessor, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), have been contacted about the issue but that he is looking into it.

Davis, who left Congress in 2009, did not respond to requests for comment.