By Rusty Hardin | April 17,2020
As a lawyer of more years than I readily concede, I am constantly struck by the devastation that can be wrought by a false allegation. This is even more pronounced if the accused has a public reputation because of their accomplishments. People in the public eye do not deserve better treatment than the average person, but they certainly do not deserve to be treated worse. Unfortunately, that is what happens all too often if the false allegation has an appealing twist to it that catches the fancy of both the mainstream and social media. Combine that with an intense desire by the accuser to ruin a spouse’s career and reputation during a divorce proceeding, and you have a ready-made opportunity to sell a false bill of goods that in the blink of an eye can wreak havoc on the reputation and career of a person of incredible accomplishments.
Last year, a false accusation devastated an amazing woman, the accomplished Army officer and astronaut Anne McClain. During a divorce, Anne’s estranged wife created a vengeful fiction in which she accused Anne of hacking into a bank account while she was on the International Space Station. The accusation and the notion that it could be the first “crime in space” produced stories that drew more than a half-million reads on Google.
The problem is it never happened. The ensuing publicist-driven media firestorm was based solely on the accusation of one person with no supporting evidence, which has now been revealed in a two-count federal indictment as a blatant lie. It was not a simple mistake of details, as the ex would have you believe — it was a malicious and intentional part of a much larger slander campaign. Left out of many of the stories was that the astronaut was the sole breadwinner and was logging on to handle bills from an account she had routinely accessed. Paying bills, even from space, is dull. The claims by her ex were juicy, but as the U.S. Attorney has found, they were also fictitious.
This intentional sabotage was extremely harmful. It harmed a career in which being a role model is part of the job description. It was, and is, deeply painful for someone who takes the obligation of service seriously. Anne has a long-proven track record of achievement in positions which require ultimate trust in combat and in outer space. Anne was also a responsible spouse and stepmother who cared deeply about her family. She continued to pay her estranged wife’s living expenses up until they divorced, months after she returned from space.
Anne became a client of mine when she was first accused of this crime. Even though she knew she did nothing wrong, the specter of defending herself and the tsunami of press reports was daunting. Yes, even for a brave woman who has been in orbit. To be so highly respected, even revered, then to suddenly be unfairly publicly reviled and mocked is devastating.
Fortunately, Anne’s part of this saga is ending, though the scars will always remain. The federal investigators were fair, detailed and thorough, and after a full investigation, they concluded that the only misconduct was that her accuser had repeatedly lied under oath. They referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Houston. And last week, after a review by federal prosecutors and a grand jury, an indictment was served on the accuser, alleging two counts of lying under oath to federal investigators. Anne did not seek these charges; they are criminal charges brought about by federal investigators after Anne’s accuser lied while creating a vindictive fantasy.
Though the accusation created a huge splash, the indictment has been barely covered by the media. That paucity of coverage is partly because of the pandemic, but it is also a reflection of the oft noted truth — the titillating accusation gets far more ink than the revelation that it was false. Nevertheless, Anne has been vindicated as to her own conduct, and what to do about the false accuser is now up to the courts.
I am sure Anne joins me in cautioning everyone — allegations of criminal and improper conduct in today’s world of instant and widespread circulation have the potential to cause great harm and anguish. I urge you to give the famous and very public person the benefit of the same skepticism and refusal to rush to judgment that you would want on behalf of yourself and your loved ones. Anne’s accuser will now seek, and is entitled to, the same presumption of innocence that she tried so hard to deny Anne.
Hardin is a Houston lawyer who regularly has clients in the public spotlight in both civil and criminal courts.
Read Houston Chronicle Article here.