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 Bancroft Hall, the huge dormitory housing all 4,200 students.
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. The course is legendary at the academy for being one of the toughest graduation requirements.
"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.
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.
"No fair-minded person, given these circumstances, could feel anything other than a sense of injustice," the attorney wrote in a 13-page letter to the admiral. Mr. Ferris reiterated the argument in appealing the expulsions to the secretary of the Navy.
Another midshipman who got the exam from Mr. Walker and is facing expulsion, Hans Jacobson, said in a recent interview that he was told Mr. Rounds was the source of the exam.
"We were on the way to our Naval Science test, and Rodney said, 'I might be able to get some good gouge,' " recalled Mr. Jacobson, a 21-year-old from Silver Spring who attended the academy's prep school with Mr. Walker. "He said the only problem is that the guy is charging money. He told me the guy was Rounds."
After evening formation Dec. 13, Mr. Walker went to Mr. Rounds' room, picked up four copies of the exam and delivered them at 9 p.m. with instructions to return them by 1 a.m., according to his statement to naval investigators.
During the night, several dozen students went to each other's rooms, copying questions and trying to work out different solutions, several midshipmen said. Many never slept.
A key confession
The next day, the nightmare of guilt and anxiety began. Three students reported to professors that they believed the exam had been compromised, launching a seven-week investigation into the largest cheating scandal since 1974, when 60 students were implicated in using "crib sheets" in a navigation course. Seven were expelled in that incident.
The key to the current investigation was Mr. Walker's confession, which explained how the exam was sold and passed on to friends, said the person who had access to all the statements made by those questioned by naval investigators.
But things quickly fell apart.
Not long after he made his statement, Mr. Walker told naval investigators, classmates began pressuring him not to tell the honor boards what he knew. Several midshipmen offered him $15,000 to resign and take all the blame, he said in a second statement to investigators.
Worried and confused, he asked to see an attorney. Lt. Dwain Alexander of the Navy Legal Service Office at the Washington Navy Yard met with him briefly in February. Mr. Walker said the lieutenant told him: "Everybody's pointing the finger at you, so you either have to go along with the story everyone else is saying or resign and become a well-endowed writer."
Efforts to talk to Lieutenant Alexander were unsuccessful, but the Navy issued a statement on his behalf that his commanding officer "thoroughly investigated allegations made against one of the lawyers" and is "confident that Lieutenant Alexander met all ethical requirements."
In early February, the superintendent turned over the results of the investigation to the brigade honor committee, which set up a series of administrative hearings the following month. Individual honor boards, each made up of nine seniors, heard each of the 28 cases.
It was a time filled with confusion and peer pressure, midshipmen say.
An academy chaplain wrote a letter to the commandant of midshipmen, Capt. John Padgett, about his counseling of midshipmen.
"There has been extensive lying by several members of the brigade," the Rev. J. William Hines said in his letter. "Case in point: two mids who thoroughly compromised the exam had told their roommate. The latter actually received phone calls from the roommates' parents threatening him not to divulge what he knew."
Seniors who spent long hours in the honor board hearings say they were stymied by silence, changing stories and Mr. Walker's decision to challenge the admissibility of his statement to naval investigators.
"The sworn statements were the best evidence," said a senior who participated in the hearings. "Midshipman Walker gave an excellent statement. Basically, he spilled his guts. But then he didn't stick to anything."
Mr. Walker still argues that his statement should have been inadmissible. "I wasn't advised of my rights, and I believed that I could not leave on my own free will," he said. "By the time I got the statement, I just started signing because I wanted to get out of there."
Though Mr. Walker raised procedural questions, other witnesses said nothing or denied they had seen the exam at the hearings. Names were blacked out in documents, creating confusion about the chain of events, a midshipman involved in the proceedings said.
As a result, the individual honor boards often reached contradictory conclusions, according to people involved in the proceedings and other sources. Two of the four students who bought the exam from Mr. Walker were convicted; the other two were cleared. Roommates who studied together the night before the exam received different verdicts.
The six who face expulsion either confessed or pleaded guilty. All of them say they are being punished for telling investigators the truth, while the rest escaped punishment. In his letter to the commandant of midshipmen, the chaplain agreed. "The honorable action throughout this entire mess has been done by those who admitted guilt," he wrote.
The results, along with the news that all five varsity football players originally implicated were cleared, led to questioning of the honor concept among the brigade.
"There's a cynicism now, I think, that if you do something wrong, as long as you lie, and it's your word against someone else's, there's no way to prove it," said a humanities professor, who would not agree to being quoted by name.
Admiral Lynch argued that the honor concept worked because midshipmen reported the cheating and spent days in administrative hearings trying to determine the truth. He acknowledged that many midshipmen were "disappointed" that only six were convicted. But the superintendent said there was not enough evidence to convict the rest.
"The Naval Academy does believe that justice was fully served," he said.