Midshipman who cheated says truth doesn't pay

April 24, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

When the truth began to surface about the biggest cheating scandal at the U.S. Naval Academy in 20 years, Rodney Walker says he did what any good sailor would do. He confessed.

Now the 23-year-old junior is one of six midshipmen facing expulsion from the prestigious school. He claims they were the only ones to follow the academy's honor code and tell the truth about the stolen exam.

"The superintendent was stressing moral courage," he said yesterday. "All six of us who were man enough to come forward and say what we did got in trouble. The others wouldn't admit it or lied about it. They got off."

Twenty-eight midshipmen were accused of passing around copies of the fall-semester final for Electrical Engineering 311, one of the school's toughest courses. All but six were cleared of honor violations.

Taught from his first day at the academy that personal honor is absolute, Mr. Walker says he came clean when questioned by naval investigators about his role. Cheating "was the dumbest thing I ever did," admitted the Atlanta native, who dreamed of becoming a Navy officer for years and attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I.

While he acknowledges that he violated the honor code by selling copies of the exam, Mr. Walker says he and the five others paid a more severe penalty by telling the truth.

He also claims one varsity football player chipped in to buy the exam, and as many as nine other football players saw the stolen copies. The test was widely circulated in the Bancroft Hall dormitory a couple of days before the Dec. 14 exam, many midshipmen have said.

Academy officials called Mr. Walker's charges "outrageous." The Naval Criminal Investigative Service spent seven weeks interviewing more than 200 midshipmen and tracking down every rumor in a "no-holds-barred" investigation, said Cmdr. Mike John, an academy spokesman.

"We stand by the integrity of the process," he said. "This was a gut-wrenching time here at the Naval Academy. A lot of rumors came up, and we investigated every single one of them."

Commander John maintained that fewer than five varsity football players were implicated in the cheating scandal, and all were cleared. None of the six midshipmen who were found guilty played varsity sports, he said.

Cheating is considered one of the most serious offenses at the academy. It strikes at the heart of the school's mission because it indicates a loss of the self-imposed discipline required of naval officers.

Mr. Walker said he did not think of the strict honor code, which states that midshipmen "do not lie, cheat or steal," when he was approached by a classmate who promised to obtain a master copy of the exam.

Nor did some of his classmates, who were eager to fork over $50 to buy the test for one of the toughest courses in the school, he said.

"What happened is a midshipman told me he could get a copy of the final exam, that somebody owed him a favor," Mr. Walker said. "I didn't believe him but he kept persisting, so I asked around. He wanted $50 each for them. It wasn't until the day of the test, though, that I knew it was the real thing."

Mr. Walker says the midshipman who obtained the master copy gave him four duplicates. The same midshipman later offered him money to take all the blame and resign, he alleges.

"I'm not surprised at all if he has an ax to grind," Commander John said about the allegations.

Some 700 midshipmen took the exam for the junior-level course, which is required of all general engineering majors and everyone not majoring in engineering.

An honor board made up of midshipmen found sufficient evidence that 11 of the 28 cheated on the final. Capt. John B. Padgett III found four of them innocent, and Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the superintendent of the academy, cleared a fifth.

A reversal of findings by the honor board is not unusual, said Commander John. Mr. Walker says they have been made "scapegoats." Commander John said they're just guilty, and there wasn't enough evidence to convict the others.

The small number of students convicted of cheating has caused some midshipmen and faculty members to raise questions about the honor code and how it is administered.

But academy officials and some students interviewed yesterday said the fact that a midshipman reported the possibility that the exam had been compromised proves that the honor system works.

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