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IN THE NEWS – February 16, 2002: 'Taking the Fifth' - 2002-02-15

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, In The News.

The former chairman of the failed energy company Enron, Kenneth Lay, refused to answer questions at a Senate hearing this week. The Senate committee is investigating the company’s financial failure.

Mister Lay used his legal right provided by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. That amendment says people do not have to provide information that may be used against them in court. Several other top officials of the huge energy company also have used this right to remain silent.

Last year, Enron became the largest company in the United States to seek legal protection from its debts. Thousands of Enron employees lost their jobs and their retirement savings as a result of the company’s failure. Lawmakers suspect Enron set up false businesses to create imaginary profits and hide losses in earnings. Lawmakers believe top officials of Enron unfairly profited from this.

Enron used the Arthur Andersen company as its independent financial examiner. Arthur Andersen also is suspected of wrongdoing. A company official also used his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions before the Senate committee.The Fifth Amendment is part of the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights contains ten amendments that became law in Seventy-Ninety-One.

The Fifth Amendment has several parts. The first says a person can not be tried for a crime unless a grand jury accuses the person. A grand jury is a special group of people chosen to decide if there is acceptable evidence against a person to hold a trial. There are a few limited exceptions to this rule.The second part of the Fifth Amendment says no person can be tried for the same crime two times. However, there are exceptions to this rule also.

The third part of the Fifth Amendment is the part used by Enron and Arthur Andersen officials. It says no person can be legally forced to speak against himself or herself. This includes answering questions in court, by police or by other government agents. Using this right is commonly called “Taking the Fifth.”

This part of the Fifth Amendment became famous in Congressional hearings during the Nineteen-Fifties. The House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating possible treason in the United States. The Committee ordered many filmmakers, writers and other people to answer questions. Committee members asked these people about their possible links to the Communist party. Many refused to answer. Some lawmakers called these people “Fifth Amendment Communists.”

The Fifth Amendment also says the government may not deny a person his or her life, freedom, or property without the process of law. And it says the government may not take a person’s property for public use without fair payment.

This VOA Special English program In The News was written by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember.