Texas veteran convicted under Stolen Valor Act doesn't want his record cleared

Fort Worth Star-TelegramJuly 13, 2012 

ARMY TIMES — Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Federal prosecutors in North Texas used the Stolen Valor Act, a law recently declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, to prosecute exactly one person for lying about his military record.

The man, perhaps surprisingly, was a veteran, a sailor-turned-soldier who concocted a breathtaking series of tall tales of heroism and claimed a rack of medals supposedly earned in Iraq and Afghanistan, all to impress people in Amarillo. He became a frequent speaker at colleges, nursing homes and veterans events.

Richard David McClanahan served 30 months in federal prison for his lies, a lengthy penalty imposed because he also lied about his income to buy a pickup from a dealership. Now living in Fort Worth, the 34-year-old ex-convict has a chance to have at least part of his conviction overturned after the Supreme Court's decision.

But McClanahan said he has no interest in clearing his record.

"I have no desire to have my record expunged," he said. "I'm not the victim here. The law was put into place for a very good reason.

"I understand the legal reasons why it was overturned and have no doubt that it was the legitimate decision for the Supreme Court. But I respectfully disagree with the court's decision. I wish the law had remained to prevent people like me from making absurd statements."

McClanahan's case had nothing to do with the appeal that reached the Supreme Court, which involved a public official in California who falsely boasted that he had earned the Medal of Honor. That man, Xavier Alvarez, fought his prosecution on the grounds that the First Amendment protected his speech, even though his statements were lies.

The justices ruled 6-3 on June 28 that the act violates constitutional guarantees of free speech, rights that extend to lies so long as no one is harmed or the person isn't engaging in financial fraud.

McClanahan did not fight his prosecution. He pleaded guilty, and in two recent conversations with the Star-Telegram, he said that he hopes a new law can be crafted to satisfy the court's objections. A new bill has been introduced in Congress that would tailor the definition of the crime to those who benefit financially from lying.

"I wish more people could be brought down and exposed," he said. "I still have friends in the military. I disrespected them. I don't believe that people should be able to get away with that, and this coming from the guy who was convicted and did time for it."

Whether McClanahan is being totally honest remains to be seen. He told the Star-Telegram that he earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from West Texas A&M University. The university says he is a former student but never earned a degree. He also significantly minimized the circumstances of his discharge from the Army, which booted him under "other than honorable" circumstances in lieu of a court-martial, according to the Justice Department.

The Stolen Valor Act, passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, never resulted in large numbers of convictions.

But according to two defense attorneys in Fort Worth, anyone convicted under the law would be eligible to have the conviction overturned. People still in the appeals process will likely have the matter handled quickly by a judge, they said. Those finished with appeals will have to file a writ of habeas corpus, requesting that a judge overturn the conviction and restore their civil liberties.

"I would think they will all get reversed and those in prison will be set free," said Richard Henderson, a trial lawyer in Fort Worth who does extensive appellate work. "Their records would be completely clear, as if it never happened."

Even if McClanahan changes his mind and wants the Stolen Valor Act conviction overturned, he cannot have the felony conviction for lying on the loan application wiped out.

(None of this affects current members of the military, for whom falsely representing qualifications and decorations has always been a crime.)

McClanahan received more press for his lies and conviction in 2007 than many other offenders, perhaps because it seems more shocking when someone with military experience violates the trust and faith of fellow veterans with such bald untruths.

McClanahan, abandoned as a child, was raised by an adoptive couple for a few years until they divorced. At about age 10, he was sent to Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in Amarillo, where he graduated from high school in 1997. He joined the Navy and served for more than two years until switching to the Army. He said he enjoyed the military's structure because it was similar to Cal Farley's.

Records show that he earned an Army Commendation and two Achievement Medals, a perfectly commendable record for a sergeant who had not yet deployed to a war zone.

But beginning in about 2005, his lying must have started, or at least a record of it accumulated. While in the Army, he began claiming the Navy SEAL Trident, Special Forces and airborne tabs, Marine reconnaissance qualification, three Silver Stars and the Legion of Merit. The Army busted him down in rank, sent him to the brig for 100 days and discharged him for his transgressions.

He returned to his hometown, enrolled at West Texas A&M and became involved in a veterans support group, America Supports You. The organization included city and county officials and retired military personnel, he said. That's when McClanahan laid down the biggest lie: that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest medal for bravery in combat.

McClanahan said that he was surrounded by people who had better military stories and that his lies grew as he realized that the status gained him more opportunities.

"Who wants to meet a guy who was a medic and deployed to Korea and then goes to college?" he asked. "Those guys are a dime a dozen. My stories weren't worth anything. I just thought, 'What is going to set David apart?'"

Alerted by suspicious veterans, the FBI investigated McClanahan. Within months, he was indicted by a federal grand jury.

He pleaded guilty to one felony count of falsely representing his income to buy the pickup and one misdemeanor count of making false claims about military medals. U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson hammered him with 34 months in prison, going outside the sentencing guidelines for what she called his "consistent pattern of lying."

McClanahan said he can't disagree with her reasoning.

He said he is ashamed and "feels awful" about his lies. He is working to rebuild his life in Fort Worth, having landed a job as a salesman. His ex-wife and two children still live in Amarillo.

Not a day goes by, McClanahan said, that he doesn't regret his actions. He said he rarely speaks to anyone about the military and doesn't want anyone to know he's a veteran because it raises too many uncomfortable subjects.

"I still have a large amount of pride at having served, which only compounds the sorrow of having made the mistake I did," he said.

"I don't go to Veterans Day parades. I don't go to Memorial Day events. I don't stand up when they recognize veterans somewhere. I'm not in the family anymore."

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