Academy scandal stirs new probe Navy watchdog investigating whether school's brass mishandled the affair

June 17, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Tom Bowman | JoAnna Daemmrich and Tom Bowman,Staff Writers

Spurred by a Senate panel, the Navy's top watchdog is investigating whether Naval Academy officials mishandled the school's biggest cheating scandal in two decades.

Agents from the Office of the Naval Inspector General came to Annapolis last week and reviewed records from the scandal that has rocked the academy for the past four months. The Pentagon's inspector general will oversee the probe requested by Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Perry.

Twenty-eight midshipmen were accused in February of passing around copies of the fall final exam for Electrical Engineering 311, one of the toughest required courses. Honor boards made up of midshipmen convicted 11 students of cheating, but five were later exonerated by top academy officials.

In the two months since Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the superintendent, announced that the other six would be expelled, midshipmen, faculty and graduates have questioned whether justice was served. At least one student alleged that midshipmen conspired to stonewall the honor boards; others claim that only those who confessed were found guilty.

"You need to look at the five who were exonerated," said a Senate aide, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "It seems kind of strange you go from 28 to six."

A Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee asked the Pentagon to determine whether an investigation at the academy was warranted after a series of newspaper articles on the cheating scandal and low faculty morale.

Articles in The Sun and other publications detailed how the midshipman implicated as the supplier of the exam was cleared after a key witness clammed up before an honor board. Also reported was an investigation into a recent statement from a midshipman that three varsity football players coordinated their testimony.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, a Democrat from Alabama who chairs the subcommittee on force requirements and personnel, sent a letter to Mr. Perry May 28 saying the articles left him with "a very unsettled feeling." The panel oversees the three military academies.

"It may be appropriate. . .to investigate the handling of the incident that appears to be out of control," Mr. Shelby wrote, while emphasizing that he had reached no conclusions.

The subcommittee also was concerned because a possibility of cheating was raised in the same course just three years ago. In May 1990, a faculty member discovered the electrical engineering office had been broken into and an exam was creased along the edges, indicating possible tampering.

No action was taken because Navy investigators could not determine if the test had been copied. Senators were worried that neither that exam nor the one given in December was readministered.

"The thing that's disturbing to the committee is this is not the

first time it happened," said the Senate aide.

Reviewing transcripts

Agents with the inspector general's office talked to academy officials last week and began reviewing transcripts of the honor board hearings.

"They're going to take a look at it from the NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] phase right through the conclusion of the individual cases," said Cmdr. Mike John, an academy spokesman. "Right now, they've just looked at records."

Naval investigators spent seven weeks this winter questioning students in the largest cheating scandal since 1974, when 60 students were implicated in using "crib sheets" in a navigation course. Seven were expelled then, while 13 others were placed on honors probation.

Commander John said the academy welcomed the new investigation as a way "to make sure that [no] stone is unturned" and "to ensure the superintendent's commitment to get to the bottom of the case." Admiral Lynch was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

The investigation could find that academy officials acted properly or could require anything from changing procedures to reconvening honor boards.

Fears not allayed

The superintendent has said there was insufficient evidence to convict most midshipmen initially accused of cheating. He has said the investigation is still open and insists he would expel the entire Class of 1994 if there's proof that all cheated.

But that has not allayed the fears of some faculty members, students and graduates that the school's strict honor system is no longer enforced effectively. Midshipmen are required to follow a code that says they do not "lie, cheat or steal."

"There's a very clear perception not only among the faculty but the midshipmen that the whole investigation was handled very cynically," said Michael Clark, a history professor who called it "tantamount to a cover-up."

Navy investigators also will look into sinking morale among the faculty. At an unprecedented meeting with the academy's Board of Visitors earlier this month, nearly 150 professors complained about declining academic standards, problems with the dean and lack of faculty recognition.

Many professors were outraged when the academy disciplined Dr. Raymond Wasta, the electrical engineering course coordinator, after the master copy of the exam vanished. He was suspended for a week, but the superintendent later cleared his record and restored his five days of pay.

The case became a focal point for faculty members concerned about what they see as erosion of their professional status.

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