Three of the 29 midshipmen recommended for expulsion were spared yesterday by the Navy's top officer, who said they should receive punishment less than expulsion for their part in a cheating scandal and should graduate with their class, officials said.
Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, chief of naval operations, recommended to Navy Secretary John H. Dalton that the other 26 seniors be expelled from the Naval Academy, said Lt. Bill Spann, a Navy spokesman.
Mr. Dalton, an academy graduate, will make the final determination on the fate of the 26.
In another development yesterday, President Clinton, as expected, nominated Adm. Charles R. Larson, 57, commander in chief of U.S. Pacific forces, to be the next superintendent of the academy.
He would be the first four-star admiral to head the school, tarnished by the largest cheating scandal in its 149-year history.
Mr. Dalton pushed for the nomination of Admiral Larson, who sources said was being considered for several high-level posts in the Clinton administration. The admiral wanted to return to the academy, where he graduated in 1958 and was superintendent from 1983 to 1986.
"I am honored to have been nominated by President Clinton and, if confirmed by the Senate, look forward to returning to the academy," Admiral Larson said yesterday in a statement from his Hawaii headquarters.
Navy officials expect Admiral Larson to serve for four years at the academy instead of the usual three.
The three midshipmen who were spared expulsion will join 59 other midshipmen whose cases have been referred to Capt. John B. Padgett II, the commandant of midshipmen. Possible punishments include restriction to the academy, loss of privileges, remedial honor training and retaking the test for those who were accused of cheating, as opposed to lying.
They also will graduate late, not receiving their diplomas and officer commissions until after their class graduates on May 25.
One hundred thirty-four midshipmen were implicated in the scandal, which involved an electrical engineering test administered to 663 juniors on Dec. 14, 1992. The bulk of them either received punishment short of expulsion or were exonerated.
The scandal struck at the heart of the academy's honor concept, which states: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity: they do not lie, cheat or steal."
A panel of five officers headed by Vice Adm. Richard C. Allen recommended to Admiral Kelso that 29 be expelled from the academy. The Allen panel also recommended that some midshipmen deemed less culpable be excused from paying for their education.
Those who are expelled could have to pay the government $80,000 for their education or serve three years in the Navy as enlisted seamen.
But Navy lawyers representing the 26 midshipmen said last night that Admiral Kelso did not accept the recommendation of the Allen panel. Some of the 26 now face paybacks of $57,450, representing the cost of their academy education through last spring.
"I'm very surprised. I assumed [Admiral Kelso] would concur with the Allen board," said Lt. Cmdr. Julie Tinker, one of the Navy lawyers representing the 26 midshipmen.
Another Navy lawyer, who requested anonymity, said Admiral Kelso appeared to "rubber stamp" many of the cases referred by the Allen board without considering the legal challenges and extenuating circumstances raised by lawyers.
Many of the 26 midshipmen received the same form letter from Admiral Kelso, said Chris Rounds, one of those recommended )) for expulsion. The midshipmen have three days to write letters in their defense to Mr. Dalton, who also will make the final decision on paybacks or service in the fleet.
Meanwhile, there was widespread praise yesterday for the selection of Admiral Larson.
"I think Admiral Larson will do an outstanding job," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an academy classmate who later roomed with the admiral during flight training.
The senator, a member of the academy's Board of Visitors, said he expects the admiral to place a "special emphasis on making sure the honor concept is not only adhered to, but respected."
Stephen Chadwick, a retired rear admiral who was midshipman commandant when Admiral Allen was superintendent, said he often hoped that Admiral Larson would return to the academy.
Mr. Chadwick recalled a line from "Reef Points," a book distributed to incoming midshipmen that covers naval rules, history and lore. " 'When principle is involved be deaf to expediency,' " he recited. "I always thought Chuck Larson lived by that."
"He wants the institution to be the best that it can be," said Richard Armitage, a former State Department official and academy graduate, noting that Admiral Larson is both an aviator and submariner, a rare combination in a naval officer.
"He offers some advantages, having been here before and having his Navy career behind him, so he doesn't have to care about some future assignments," said retired Vice Adm. Charles S. Minter Jr., who was academy superintendent from 1964 to 1965.
Admiral Larson would replace Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, whose leadership during the cheating scandal has been criticized and who admitted failure in not aggressively pursuing an investigation.
Despite the criticism, Admiral Minter called the outgoing superintendent "a superb naval officer."
"Admiral Lynch has known Admiral Larson for many years," Lt. Cmdr. Paul J. Weishaupt, an academy spokesman, said in a statement. "He's an outstanding officer, and the Naval Academy would be well served by a man of his leadership and experience."