WASHINGTON -- The Navy's inspector general told a Senate subcommittee yesterday that Naval Academy officials did not seem eager to get to the bottom of a cheating scandal that eventually developed into the largest in the school's 149-year history.
At the same hearing, Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch admitted "failure" for not pressing the investigation, but denied any effort to stifle it or cover up anyone's role in the affair.
Admiral Lynch said he thought there was no need for another probe last spring, once a naval criminal investigation led to 28 midshipmen being implicated in cheating on an electrical engineering exam in December 1992.
"I think it was a failure on my part," the admiral told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee during a four-hour hearing. "I did not believe it exceeded beyond" those midshipmen initially implicated.
In reply to pointed questions by Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the Alabama Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, the admiral denied any intent on his part to limit the investigation or cover up a larger cheating problem.
It was Mr. Shelby who requested a second investigation in June by the Navy's inspector general, Vice Adm. David M. Bennett, spurred by reports that midshipmen did not believe all the guilty had been caught.
That investigation's findings, issued last week, implicated 133 senior midshipmen in the cheating scandal that strikes at the heart of the school's honor concept, which states that midshipmen will not "lie, cheat or steal." More than 100 of those cases are before a panel of officers who have the power to punish or expel the offenders.
Admiral Bennett's 30-page report detailed instances of mismanagement, lax oversight and delays at the hands of academy officials when new information about cheating came forward. Pressed by Mr. Shelby, Admiral Bennett said yesterday there was no evidence of intentional cover-up or delay in the academy's initial handling of the probe.
"Do you believe that the actions taken by the leadership of the academy were guided by any motives other than the desire to get to the bottom of the truth of a very complex, emotionally and politically charged issue?" Mr. Shelby asked.
"I think they were anxious to get to the end," replied Admiral Bennett.
"To the end, but maybe not to the bottom?" asked the senator.
"Yes, sir," the admiral responded.
Decision for Navy
Asked about Admiral Bennett's comments after the hearing, Admiral Lynch said, "The facts don't support that."
fTC After the hearing, Mr. Shelby was asked if the superintendent or top leaders at the academy should resign as a result of what he has termed a "botched" investigation.
"That kind of decision would come from the Navy," he said.
Asked the same question, Admiral Lynch said: "I feel very badly about all that has happened." Pressed again, he said, "I intend to stay there."
Yesterday's hearing was the latest episode in a scandal that has gripped the academy since the master copy of the final exam for Electrical Engineering 311 vanished several days before it was administered to 663 juniors on Dec. 14, 1992.
Copies of the exam spread quickly through Bancroft Hall, the sprawling dormitory for all 4,100 midshipmen, as members of the class gathered to copy and solve the test questions.
Several hours after the exam was given, a midshipman sent a computer message alerting an electrical engineering professor to the cheating. Other students soon came forward to alert academy officials.
Throughout the investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Navy inspector general, there were concerns among midshipmen that the academy was not interested in finding all the cheaters. There was also the belief among students -- noted in the Navy IG report -- that Admiral Lynch, a former Navy football captain, was intent on shielding the football team from the investigations.
Role of football
According to the IG report, Admiral Lynch termed the investigation a "witch hunt" after learning that the entire football team had been interviewed.
Told that the investigation would last into the fall, he indicated that the investigators should take their time, implying he did not want their report to come out before the Army-Navy game Dec. 5.
The admiral denied he was trying to shield the team. He told the Senate panel of concerns among coaches and players that they were being singled out, since there was a rumor that members of the team were the first to receive the stolen exam.
"You don't place football above honor, do you?" asked Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Admiral Lynch said no.
The West Virginia Democrat sharply criticized Admiral Lynch for the decision to allow former Lt. Col. Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-contra scandal and a 1968 Naval Academy graduate, to sign books at the academy gift store in November.
Spurred by the fact that Mr. North -- now a Republican candidate for Senate nomination from Virginia -- and other Iran-contra figures graduated from the academy, Mr. Byrd four years ago pushed through legislation requiring the service academies to teach an ethics course. At the Naval Academy, the course is nicknamed "Ollie North 101."
"I think this is outrageous. This sends the wrong message to midshipmen," said the senator of Mr. North's visit.
"We're talking about conduct at the Naval Academy," he said. "We're talking about what has happened that has caused this" scandal.
"I was not trying to glorify Ollie North," the admiral said, but instead allowing a controversial figure to appear, giving midshipmen a chance to debate his role.
Admiral Lynch, who likely will leave the academy in June after the standard three-year tour, said he is intent on improving honor training at the Naval Academy.
The admiral said he took "full responsibility" for the scandal and pledged to "improve the effectiveness of our character development program."
Admiral Lynch was flanked by the superintendents of West Point and Air Force, who told the panel that honor is vital to training military officers.
"At West Point, we refer to honor as Bedrock 1," said Lt. Gen. Howard D. Graves, West Point's superintendent.
"The honor code and honor system work, and in spite of the various pressures to compromise, we cannot and will not relax our standards and expectations."
The Navy IG report, a study by the academy's civilian Board of Visitors and the academy's internal review found the honor concept is not taken seriously at the academy and training is lax.
Numerous recommendations designed to strengthen instruction are being put into effect.