Sunday, June 4, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Expelled For Cheating On Exam, Ex-Midshipmen Blame System

Washington Post

A YEAR LATER, the midshipmen expelled from the Naval Academy for cheating admit to many emotions, but remorse isn't one of them. Some are proud they didn't rat on their classmates and others say things worked out for the best. --------------------------------------

Sure, they're sad. Who wouldn't regret being kicked out of the U.S. Naval Academy in the school's biggest cheating scandal ever? And, yes, they know they did wrong. But, a year later, some of the 24 midshipmen booted from the Navy's elite training school now display a wry sort of pride.

Reached in the sales offices and steel plants where they've taken jobs, or in the suburban homes they've helped finance by selling their stories to Hollywood, many now describe themselves as having been caught up in a system whose sins outweighed theirs.

"It's funny, everyone wants to talk about it. I'll never be at a loss for a good story to tell in a bar or whatever," said Brian Pirko, who feels that being open with his employers about his expulsion for cheating "probably helped me get a job." Pirko, a salesman for a Columbia, Md.-based telephone service company, said he knows he dishonored himself by cheating but finds that people are intrigued by the ethical dilemmas the midshipmen confronted.

One year after the conclusion of the cheating scandal involving a December 1992 electrical-engineering exam, the battle against creeping cynicism in the academy and in the Navy is far from over.

As the class of 1995 graduates, the 150-year-old Annapolis, Md., institution still is grappling with deep-seated conflicts about what happened and why, and about how honor and loyalty will be instilled in future graduates.

Pirko and some of his expelled classmates said they believe the academy let them down by creating a system where cheating and cynicism were allowed to flourish. Others who were forced to leave the academy said the scandal taught them valuable lessons about truth, or about what kind of career they really wanted.

The cheating scandal was especially painful for the Navy because it occurred not among hardened sailors but in the cherished place where the Navy's future leaders are molded. After 16 months of investigations, the final tally in April 1994 implicated 134 members of the Class of 1994, including 88 midshipmen found guilty of cheating or lying to investigators. Of those 134, 24 were expelled, 64 received lesser punishments and 38 were cleared; eight left the academy for reasons unrelated to the incident.

In the end, the Navy's inspector general found that midshipmen not only cheated, but lied to protect themselves and each other. The investigators also found fault with the academy, noting that its officials failed to investigate properly and fostered an appearance of favoritism toward athletes - especially football players.

"What the Navy has learned from this incident and others is, it's important to address situations when they happen and deal with them early," Navy Secretary John Dalton said in a recent interview.

To help steer the school back on course, the Navy last year named four-star Admiral Charles Larson as academy superintendent, the highest-ranking officer to hold the position. He is fighting the battle with a raft of ethics and character-development courses and, by all accounts, a greater openness and consistency in enforcing the school's Honor Concept.

"People heaved a huge sigh of relief when he came. In my four years here I've never seen so many people feeling so positive," said Reuben Brigety, a graduating senior and first-semester brigade commander. "People feel fairness has been restored."

The core of Larson's approach is to tighten up, raise academic standards and return spit and polish to the school. He kicked out 89 students during the 1994-95 school year, compared to 55 expelled two years earlier. "Where we've drifted is we've tried to be a bit more civilian. . . . What we do best is be more military," Larson said.

Larson and the new second-in-command, Capt. William Bogle, have ordered changes that will give midshipmen less liberty, such as requiring them to return early on Sunday evenings to eat dinner together. Other changes are aimed at lessening the widespread belief among midshipmen that football players receive special treatment. Officials also are instituting measures to curb cheating - ending the practice, for instance, of allowing football players to take exams before other students do.


And, in an effort to break up clique-ism, another contributing factor in the cheating scandal, the academy is "scrambling" the sophomore class, so that midshipmen will not remain in the same living and training unit when they begin their second year, said academy spokesman Capt. Tom Jurkowsky.

Not every change has gone down well, however. Larson's decree that sophomores can no longer drive cars or wear civilian clothes is extremely unpopular, said midshipmen and professors.

The centerpiece of Larson's new administration is a "character development" curriculum involving mandatory courses starting this fall. The courses will draw heavily on texts written by seasoned naval officers discussing real-life ethical dilemmas, rather than previously embraced business-oriented management techniques such as Total Quality Management, Larson said.

Students have already begun monthly "integrity development" seminars, created with help from the academy's classics-steeped colleagues at nearby St. John's College. In one recent seminar, the entire 4,000-member brigade read and discussed Herman Melville's "Billy Budd."

To some of the expelled midshipmen, all this consternation over ethics and honor seems an overreaction.

"Yeah, cheating is wrong, but you and I both know it happens," said Chris Rounds, who describes himself as "one of the kingpins" who first obtained and distributed the exam to others. "I did wrong, but it wasn't evil."

He said he was disappointed when he entered the academy, after three years in the regular Navy. "There was more politics, the place took the fun out of things, it was so serious and structured - like a caricature of the real Navy," he said.

Rounds adhered to at least one Navy tradition: don't bilge your classmate. Because he at first steadfastly denied that he knew anything about the cheating, Rounds was cleared in the initial probe but ultimately was expelled.


Now he is living in Baltimore and taking pre-med classes at Loyola College. He said his academy classmates admired him for being "a stand-up guy" who didn't talk, but he acknowledged he learned one valuable lesson: "a military career was probably not for me."

Javier Zuluaga, a co-captain of the academy football team, is similarly proud of his refusal to talk: "If you're in combat, do you want to fight with a guy who will stick with you or a guy who will rat?" Zuluaga was expelled for lying, rather than cheating.

"All this, over a test?" said Zuluaga, who like Pirko is working with a writer on a movie version of the incident. Zuluaga said academy officials stopped supporting accused football players as soon as they lost the Army-Navy game:

"I'm not complaining - they were under a lot of heat," he said. "I just find it ironic, that's all."

Zuluaga married his high-school girlfriend and is living in North Carolina. He played football briefly with the Tampa Bay Stars of the Arena Football League and worked in a plant making ball bearings. He has since been taking classes at Barton College, selling real estate and plans to coach high-school football this fall. He says he's found civilian life suits him better than the Spartan regimen of the military :

"Here I am today, all this free time. . . . I'm my own man," Zuluaga said.

And what of the midshipmen who, in a sense, exposed the affair - the ones who confessed their guilt early on and were expelled, while others who denied it were retained?

Except for one, their expulsions were reversed by the Navy and they are graduating either this year or have already graduated. The one student whose expulsion was not reversed was accused of selling the exam.

Though he at first tried to deny it, Pirko eventually owned up to having seen a copy of the test. "It felt good to finally tell them what I knew, to clear my conscience," Pirko said. By that time, "They knew anyway, who was lying to them and who wasn't."


Pirko said he hadn't been in trouble in the class, but worked out the engineering problems that night largely to be "loyal to your shipmates." It seems a hollow ideal to him now.

"As a result of helping my friends, I got kicked out," said Pirko, who has abandoned his college plans. "These are all the same people who later turned me in, that's how I felt. Afterwards, they couldn't look me in the eye."

But even some of those who are bitter about the handling of the incident say the cheaters themselves must accept the most blame for what happened.

"I stand behind my kids and I'd do anything for them, but in the end, they are responsible for themselves," said Marty Stepanic, whose son, Jeff Stepanic, was among those expelled. "I don't love him any less. I came out respecting him more. These kids had the most to learn from this - they learned about themselves."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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