IN THE PUBLIC'S mind, rectitude used to be synonymous with the U.S. Naval Academy. Now it seems the word "scandal" has replaced it. No sooner than furor over one disgrace dies down -- be it cheating, drugs, car theft, pedophilia, sexual harassment -- another one seems to pop up and take its place.
Academy Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson must feel like a modern-day Sisyphus, stuck in a rut that he can't exit despite his best efforts. Instead of having to roll a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down again, as in the Greek myth, every couple of weeks Admiral Larson is condemned to pick up the morning paper and read about another incident tarnishing his school.
The latest ignominy, involving a female plebe who confessed to murdering a Texas teen-ager with her boyfriend, Air Force Academy Cadet Christopher Graham, is perhaps the most unfortunate.
Diane Zamora could have been enrolled in any university. In high school, she had amassed a commendable scholastic record and starred in track. Her ambition was to become a Navy officer and astronaut.
Even though the crime took place months before Ms. Zamora set foot on the academy grounds, the institution, in the public's mind, is now inextricably linked with a murder.
Despite all the negative publicity, the academy can take satisfaction that a number of students and officials acted with honor and responsibility.
The most commendable are Ms. Zamora's roommates. After hearing what must have seemed like a unbelievable story in a late-night bull session, they immediately reported it to academy officials. Even though they had been on the campus less than two months, these two midshipmen displayed a level of integrity and honor many four-year midshipmen fail to attain.
They were put in the very difficult position of having to snitch on a roommate. But they did the right thing. They told an academy chaplain and a psychologist of the conversation. Those two passed the information on to top Naval Academy officials.
At least one midshipman who heard Ms. Zamora's story did not report it and decided it would be better to resign than to remain at the school.
Admiral Larson and his legal staff also deserve accolades. In what amounted to searching for a needle in a haystack, they contacted law enforcement agencies in Texas in hopes of matching Ms. Zamora's story to an unsolved murder. They struck pay dirt when the Grand Prairie police said the story matched a murder in their jurisdiction.
The academy officials took Ms. Zamora to Baltimore-Washington International Airport to catch a plane to Texas, but instead she took one to Colorado to meet with her boyfriend at the Air Force Academy. She eventually returned to Texas, where she was taken into custody.
A minor commotion has erupted over Admiral Larson's decision not to inform the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that a plebe might have committed a murder. Under Navy regulations, the NCIS is responsible for handling all investigations of suspected crimes involving Navy personnel. Although Admiral Larson kept the Navy's chain of command informed of his actions, bypassing the NCIS was a breach of regulations.
Since adhering to regulations is such an important facet of life for midshipmen, much is being made of the superintendent's decision to disregard regulations.
It has been suggested that if the NCIS had been involved, Ms. Zamora might have been put into custody sooner than she was. The NCIS would have been able to contact Texas police departments more quickly. Its investigators would have also been able to question Ms. Zamora and taken her into custody.
Had Ms. Zamora fled, these issues might have been of more importance.
Admiral Larson, who has occupied a number of top Navy commands, has been forced to make tough calls throughout his career. He apparently calculated that resolving this situation without NCIS would be better for the academy.
While Admiral Larson might have wanted this situation quietly resolved, its bizarre circumstances have attracted all the attention he wanted to avoid.
In that sense, his decision may have backfired. However, in another sense, he demonstrated the kind of leadership midshipmen need to see if they are to become effective officers.
Admiral Larson, a believer in leading by example, decided that his method of resolving this problem was quicker and more efficient than following regulations. Events have proven him to be correct. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton supports the superintendent's decision and will take no disciplinary action.
I wonder, though: Had a midshipman decided to take the same course of action, would he or she have received the same consideration?
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 9/22/96