Colombia's president testifies at anti-Semitism trial: Live updates

When Nemat Shafiq, president of Columbia University, was asked to appear before Congress in December to testify about anti-Semitism on college campuses, he said he could not attend, citing a scheduling conflict.

His colleagues at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who were publicly grilled in a hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee, may also want to consider it.

That hearing raised the question of why individuals are obligated to appear before Congress — especially when they know they're walking into high-risk situations where lawmakers with political agendas are looking for opportunities to create viral moments by laying prosecutorial traps for their witnesses. .

President of the University of Pennsylvania M. Elizabeth Magill resigned four days after appearing at the hearing, where she gave evasive answers about anti-campus bigotry. Harvard's president, Claudine Kay, gave similarly vague answers and faced a fierce backlash for weeks until her resignation in January.

In contrast, Dr. Shafiq, who goes to Minooch and Columbia University, went through the entire episode last year. Dr. Shafiq spoke at a session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai on how climate change affects women.

Attorneys preparing clients to testify before Congress said that while there are risks in not appearing, it's always an option. And there are opportunities in early panel discussions to avoid potentially devastating testimony.

Christopher Armstrong, an attorney with Holland & Knight who represents clients through congressional hearings and oversight hearings, says declining a congressional subpoena is “always on the table, unless you're subpoenaed.”

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“The motivation is that you have to testify – it's not a good look to refuse to cooperate,” said Mr. Armstrong said. “If I had a client and I realized that testifying would be a disaster, I wouldn't have them testify.”

There are dangers in thanking Congress, but no thanks.

If the committee fails to appear before lawmakers, they risk voluntarily requesting your presence. According to legal experts, the odds are slim if an individual chooses to sue over a subpoena, and few corporate chief executives prefer to go that route. This can raise the stakes: When a person does eventually appear, volunteer or respond to a subpoena, they are more likely to appear on their own.

There is also the risk that the group will hang a name sign on an empty chair to highlight the individual's failure to appear in the theater.

“It's usually not in a client's best interest,” said Emily Loeb, head of the congressional investigations practice at Jenner & Black LLP.

But Dr. was not threatened with prosecution for failing to appear in December. As in Shafiq's case, lawyers may first try to get a panel to agree not to insist on their client's appearance.

Those dragged before Congress often make the mistake of seeing it as an opportunity and assume that they can improve their position by presenting their case to a higher body.

Experts say this is completely wrong. A “victory,” Mr. Armstrong said, “We don't talk about hearings.”

Sharon Otterman Contributed report.

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