The Navy's inspector general is building cases against a growing number of midshipmen who escaped charges earlier this year in what is becoming the largest cheating scandal in memory at the Naval Academy.
Investigators now suspect at least 125 midshipmen had some knowledge of the final exam for Electrical Engineering 311, ranging from receiving a computer message urging them to study a particular question to actually getting a copy of the test.
While some bought copies of the test for one of the school's toughest courses, others may have been unaware that they saw the actual exam, believing it was "good gouge," academy slang for old tests, sources familiar with the investigation said.
Initially, 28 juniors were accused of cheating from copies of the fall-semester final.
Eleven were convicted by honor boards made up of midshipmen, but senior academy officials later cleared five of them.
But investigators now believe that a far larger group saw at least some exam questions.
"A lot of people have come forward," said one high-ranking Navy official, who expects cases against a substantial number of new midshipmen. "It's not going to be just four."
The Office of the Navy Inspector General is still gathering evidence and it is not clear how many new cases will be recommended for disciplinary action by academy officials. The inspector general's report will be forward to Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton.
A dozen investigators have been trying to determine exactly how the exam was distributed through Bancroft Hall, the dormitory housing all 4,200 midshipmen. They also want to track down how a midshipman obtained the master copy of the exam at least three days before it was given Dec. 14.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which handled the cheating scandal after it was first reported, apparently uncovered only one branch in the distribution network, another Navy official said.
Investigators were stymied because midshipmen clammed up and refused to turn in their friends, the official said. Students have been more forthcoming with a dozen investigators from the Office of the Navy Inspector General because they're treating it as an ethical rather than criminal breach.
"We did a thorough job. We approached it as a criminal investigation," said Ronald W. Benefield, resident agent in charge of the NCIS in Annapolis. He said the service is no longer involved.
Once the academy superintendent, Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, announced in April that six midshipmen would be expelled, other midshipmen came forward. They claimed that they had overheard students colluding on their testimony and implicated more midshipmen of having seen the exam.
The six midshipmen who were convicted have been willing to provide additional information about how the exam was distributed.
In the biggest cheating scandal since the honor code was created in 1951, 61 students were implicated in the use of "crib sheets" in a navigation course exam in 1974. Seven were expelled.
Two years later, 96 cadets were expelled from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for cheating on an electrical engineering exam. Many were reinstated later after the honor-code enforcement proceedings came under fire by Congress.
At the Naval Academy, the cheating scandal continues to cast a pall over the campus.
Nine months after the cheating occurred, midshipmen still are talking about how many of their classmates saw the exam and whether the strict honor code failed to live up to its name.
Some want to see justice done, but others say they're ready to put the scandal behind them. "That's all anyone talks about here," said a 21-year-old senior. Another senior, who was surprised by the number now implicated, said, "The I.G. is doing a better job than what was first done. It's a good thing."
Second Class Midshipman Eric J. Paulson, a 20-year-old from Madison, Conn., said he feels that the affair has dragged on too long.
"Basically, my theory is to drop it," he said, adding that he believes all those who cheated have been caught.