Mid Spared Jail Time In Sex-offense Case

Alumni stepped in to support the accused

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July 22, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL AND BRADLEY OLSON | ANDREA F. SIEGEL AND BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTERS

The court-martial of former Navy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr. on a rape charge elicited a show of support for the midshipman by prominent alumni -- some of whom helped the football star procure a top-flight legal defense team -- despite the highly public campaign against sexual misconduct being waged by the academy's superintendent.

Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's superintendent, has made no secret of his desire to transform a campus culture that critics, and Pentagon studies, say is hostile toward women. His handling of the Owens case was unusually public and aggressive.

Despite the institution's emphasis on chain of command and respect for military authority, several alumni responded to the admiral's initiative with an equally aggressive, behind-the-scenes defense of the former football star accused of rape by a female midshipman.

John E. Sheehan, a 1952 graduate and former chairman of the Naval Academy Alumni Association, said this week that he pushed Owens to seek out John Nolan, a senior partner at the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson in Washington.

Nolan, a 1950 graduate, is the general counsel of the Naval Academy Foundation.

"The superintendent is the one who should be on trial," Sheehan said Tuesday outside the courtroom, as the Owens defense got under way. "Lamar Owens is innocent, and he will be acquitted."

Nolan brought in his colleague, Reid Weingarten, who has represented corporate executives in headline-making white-collar criminal cases, including those involving Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International and HealthSouth. Weingarten said in an interview that he became involved in the case at the urging of Nolan, who he said is a "sweet man" whom he greatly respects.

"He chatted with me one day because he thought there might be an injustice in this case," Weingarten said of Nolan.

Nolan met Owens' family -- his father is a meter reader for a Georgia power company and his mother a prenatal nurse in the former football player's native Savannah -- and asked Weingarten to meet Owens.

"I have an unusual arrangement with my firm in that I can take whatever cases I want," Weingarten said. "I'm an independent agent of my firm. So I met with Lamar, and after one hour, I knew I wanted to help him."

Nolan, who often sat in the courtroom and chatted with Owens' family, declined to comment except to say he was pleased with Owens' acquittal on the rape charge. (Owens was convicted of two lesser offenses.)

"You like to see justice done, and I think that it was, in spades in this case," Nolan said after the sentencing hearing yesterday.

The assistance that Owens received reflects a belief among some alumni that Rempt, the school's superintendent, had gone too far in charging Owens with raping a female midshipmen in her dorm room Jan. 29.

Rempt has become a lightning rod for criticism for his uncompromising approach to allegations of sexual misconduct at the academy, which has been criticized in Pentagon studies for failing to rein in a culture hostile to women.

The move by some alumni to support Owens represents a break with the leadership of the college.

Many prominent alumni, especially those affiliated with the Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation, generally work cooperatively with the administration on such things as fundraising and football games.

The foundation, a nonprofit group that includes the college's alumni association, recently completed a $250 million fundraising campaign that has pumped money into new building projects and faculty positions.

Skid Heyworth, a spokesman for the alumni association and foundation, declined to comment on the Owens case or any possible rift between powerful alumni and Rempt.

"Our role is to support the Naval Academy and the brigade of midshipmen," he said. "Our alumni are free to state their own personal opinions and take their own personal actions. That's absolutely their decision."

Foundation members tend to be heavyweights in business, sports and other areas. Working primarily in the steel manufacturing and hotel business, Sheehan served as senior officer of three Fortune 500 companies and a director of four. He also served as a governor on the Federal Reserve System from 1971 to 1975.

Over the years, Sheehan has written numerous letters to the editor in The Sun, The Capital of Annapolis and The New York Times, defending academy leadership, the alumni association's actions and the Navy football team.

Charlotte Cluverius , a lawyer who formerly taught at the Naval Academy and who now handles military cases in private practice, said it's hardly unusual for some alumni to take issue with the academy leadership, but typically the issues have a lower profile.

"There is a little bit of an ego game over there," she said.

Only a few years ago, for example, many alumni objected to the administration's plan to add air conditioning to Bancroft Hall, she said. The massive dormitory did get air-conditioned.

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