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Sen. Conrad advances legislation to crack down on military service liars

WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., introduced a bill in 2005 that would penalize people who lied about military service or falsely claimed to have been awarded a military medal, he said lawmakers knew there could be a constitutional challenge.

The Stolen Valor Act sailed through Congress in 2006, getting unanimous support in the Senate before being signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2006.

But after years of legal challenges, the Supreme Court struck down the law in a 6-3 vote last month, citing concerns that its broad prohibition infringed on freedom of speech.

"That, to me, is really stretching freedom of speech to claim that you got a Medal of Honor or to claim that you were an admiral, and you never received any of the awards and you never held that rank, and many of these people never even served," Conrad said.

Conrad and four other Democratic senators are now co-sponsoring legislation from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would restore criminal penalties for those who lie about serving in the military or receiving medals, decorations or other honors.

Known as the Military Service Integrity Act, the bill would threaten those who break the law with a fine or up to six months in prison.

Conrad said that while the new bill is similar to the Stolen Valor Act, it was carefully written to avoid falling into the same constitutional problems.

The Military Service Integrity Act would instead target those "with the intent of securing a tangible benefit or personal gain" through their lies. That includes trying to get military service benefits, employment advancement or financial gain, as well as trying to affect the outcome of court proceedings or boosting personal credibility in a political campaign.

"By providing these more specific and limited definitions, our lawyers tell us that they believe this would pass constitutional muster," Conrad said.

He said the legislation is important because it would address something that "seems wrong at every level" -- taking credit for military service or recognition, and diminishing what those awards mean for the people who earn them.

"I think the American people, if they would be exposed to the number of these frauds occurring around the country, would just be outraged," he said. "I mean, people going around suggesting they've won America's highest honors and most cherished commendations, or actually wearing the medals and they never received them? That's just unacceptable."

Conrad said the bill has been filed and is awaiting action in the Senate, likely by offering the act as an amendment to a broader piece of legislation.