More questions than answers in academy probe

May 19, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

The midshipman implicated as the supplier of an exam tha was bought and sold by students in the Naval Academy's biggest cheating scandal in two decades was cleared after the key witness against him clammed up before an honor board.

He was not punished, but six other midshipmen, including the key witness, were convicted of honor violations in March and face expulsion.

The witness, Midshipman 2nd Class Rodney Walker, said he was acting on the advice of a Navy lawyer who urged him to "stick by the brigade" when he told the board it should not consider his statement detailing how the exam was obtained because it was made under duress.

In his sworn statement to naval investigators, Mr. Walker admitted he got the fall-semester final exam for Electrical Engineering 311 from Midshipman 2nd Class Christopher Rounds and sold copies to four friends in December.

Mr. Walker's statement was the linchpin of the investigation, say the people involved in the proceedings.

The 23-year-old from Atlanta said that in addition to being advised by his lawyer to stand by his classmates, he was pressured by other students to keep quiet and even offered a $15,000 bribe to resign.

Without his information, the honor boards could do nothing except find the majority of the accused not guilty, said a person close to the investigation who, like others interviewed, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Mr. Rounds was among 28 midshipmen originally charged with cheating. He was cleared of honor violations after a board of senior midshipmen found insufficient evidence to convict him, largely because Mr. Walker had undercut his own statement, a source said.

Mr. Rounds, who pleaded not guilty at his March 18 hearing, did not return phone calls over the past two weeks and did not respond to a written request for an interview that was delivered to his dormitory.

The brigade honor committee, which oversees the administrative hearings, dismissed four of the original 28 cases for insufficient evidence. Mr. Rounds was among 13 students cleared by the individual honor boards that heard the remaining 24 cases. Top academy officials later exonerated five of the 11 convicted, citing insufficient evidence, and recommended that the six other students be dismissed.

The scandal, which strikes at the heart of the academy's mission to train Navy officers with high moral and ethical standards, left many students and their professors wondering about the administration of the honor concept. Some at the academy now believe the evidence should have been turned over to the military justice system.

"There are loopholes in the honor system. It's fine for individual cases, but it's not designed to deal with a conspiracy such as this," said a senior involved in the hearings.

Academy officials have defended the administration of the strict honor code, which says that midshipmen "do not lie, cheat or steal," but refused to discuss specific cases because of federal privacy laws.

"We still don't know exactly how the midshipmen got the exam," said Cmdr. Mike John, an academy spokesman. "We were never even able to prove that the exam was stolen."

Test for sale

In his Jan. 8 statement to Deborah I. Reese, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Mr. Walker revealed in detail how copies of the final for Electrical Engineering 311 were distributed through the Bancroft Halldormitory.

Mr. Walker told the agent he was solicited by Mr. Rounds to sell the exam about a week before it was scheduled to be given to about 700 juniors on Dec. 14. "I am friends with Midshipman Chris Rounds," Mr. Walker said in the statement. "A couple of days before the EE311 final, he was bragging that he had access to any exam you could want. He asked if I wanted one. I told him no. Later he asked again. He was asking $50."

Mr. Walker said he doubted the test was the real thing. "I just thought it was good gouge," he explained, referring to a slang expression for old test questions given out by professors as study materials.

At first, he refused to peddle it. But Mr. Walker told naval investigators that after being pressured by Mr. Rounds, from whom he had borrowed $100 to fix his car, he enlisted three friends to buy the test. A fourth classmate, a varsity football player, dropped by his dorm room and simply handed over $50 for a copy, Mr. Walker told investigators.

He told at least three of the buyers that the test had come from Mr. Rounds, a junior from San Diego. Two of those who studied from the test later told investigators that Mr. Walker had informed them at the time that Mr. Rounds was the source of the exam, according to their attorney, William M. Ferris.

Defense argument

Mr. Ferris, a 1970 academy graduate representing four of the six midshipmen who face dismissal, argued to Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the academy's superintendent, that justice was not served.

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