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Court nixes civil suits over lies to grand jury

Apr 2, 2012, 3:13 PM

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that witnesses who lie to a grand jury are protected from civil lawsuits, giving them the same protection that witnesses get at trials.

The justices ruled against Charles Rehberg, an accountant who was indicted three times involving charges that he harassed doctors affiliated with a south Georgia hospital system.

After the third indictment was dismissed even before a trial, Rehberg sued local prosecutors and their investigator, James Paulk. Rehberg said that he was placed under investigation because of the hospital’s political connections and that Paulk’s false grand jury testimony led to the indictments.

But Justice Samuel Alito said Rehberg’s lawsuit should not go forward. Witnesses are protected from civil lawsuits over what they say in trial testimony. “Grand jury witnesses should enjoy the same immunity as witnesses at trial,” Alito said. “This means that a grand jury witness has absolute immunity.”

Prosecutors also generally are immune from civil lawsuits for anything that relates to a trial.

Lying under oath can subject someone to criminal charges. That was not at issue before the high court.

The dispute arose in 2003 when anonymous faxes critical of the company’s flagship hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Ga., began landing in the inboxes of Albany leaders. Hospital leaders soon launched an investigation into the sources of the faxes, which divulged information on Phoebe’s executive salaries, political connections and financial holdings.

The investigation eventually traced the faxes to Rehberg and Dr. John Bagnato, a prominent surgeon. Bagnato and his partners wanted to open a facility that the hospital opposed.

Rehberg claims that the Dougherty County District Attorney launched a criminal investigation and obtained indictments as a favor to the hospital company’s executives.

The federal appeals court in Atlanta threw out claims against the prosecutors, former Dougherty County District Attorney Ken Hodges and Kelly Burke, and Paulk. Hodges unsuccessfully ran for Georgia Attorney General in 2010.

The Supreme Court also decided:

_ to review a deportation case where an immigrant is being sent back to Jamaica for being caught with 1.3 grams marijuana. Adrian Moncrieffe pleaded guilty in Georgia to the state crime of possession with intent to distribute. Immigration officials say that equals an aggravated felony conviction under the federal Controlled Substance Act, which makes him deportable. Moncrieffe lost appeals of that decision in the lower courts.

_ to referee a fight between the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the federal government over controlled flooding in the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area from 1993 to 2000. A federal judge ordered the government to pay Arkansas $5.6 million for the timber that was destroyed during the flooding, but that was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The appeals court threw out the decision because the flooding did not equal a permanent taking of the state’s land because it was a temporary action.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Court nixes civil suits over lies to grand jury