WASHINGTON — The U.S. Naval Academy was hit by unprecedented scandal Thursday when two current and three former midshipmen were charged with operating a stolen car ring.
Authorities said that the indictment of the five men by a federal grand jury in Baltimore capped a six-month investigation by the FBI, the Maryland State Police and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
The charges dealt a double blow to the historic institution because they came despite efforts by its leaders to right the Annapolis, Md., academy--following drug and cheating scandals of recent years--through more rigorous attention to its revered honor code and new emphasis on character and integrity.
Never before have authorities said that a multi-state criminal enterprise was operated inside the institution. Academy officials had no immediate comment.
Critics fault the academy for attitudes that place less value on telling the truth than on loyalty to peers--discouraging classmates from informing on others even if they engage in serious misdeeds. In a final report last year on the cheating scandal, the Navy's inspector general found that midshipmen not only cheated but also lied to protect themselves and each other.
U.S. Atty. Lynne A. Battaglia in Baltimore said in a statement that the men had stolen and sold at least eight vehicles with a total value of $85,000, including two that were purchased by an undercover FBI agent.
Prosecutors said that most of the cars were stolen from the New York area and driven to Annapolis, where members of the ring were said to have used fictitious bills of sale or made counterfeit motor vehicle titles to apply for and obtain new titles from Tennessee, Pennsylvania and other states.
Some of the vehicles then were sold to an Annapolis foreign car dealer outside the gates of the academy, according to the indictment.
"These boys were smart in many respects," one investigator said. "But they weren't smart enough to avoid selling two cars to an undercover agent."
A drug possession scandal last fall resulted in more than 20 arrests at the Naval Academy and 24 students were dismissed in the wake of a 1994 cheating scandal. The new scandal comes only days after a civilian professor was reassigned for publicly criticizing what he called the low state of ethics at the 150-year-old institution.
The professor, James F. Barry, a former naval officer in Vietnam, wrote a critique published in the Washington Post two weeks ago in which he said: "Every day I see evidence of the decline of this institution and no evidence that the administration even realizes there's a problem."
Barry declared that the academy "is plagued by a serious morale problem caused by a culture of hypocrisy, one that tolerates sexual harassment, favoritism and the covering up of problems."
A day after his commentary appeared, Barry was abruptly "reassigned" from classroom and counseling duties and instructed to write a report for his superiors on how the problems he perceived could be corrected. He has since been returned to the classroom, however.
An academy spokesman said that officials had been aware of the issues raised by Barry and that the academy superintendent, Adm. Charles R. Larson, "has made tremendous progress" in addressing the problems.
Larson took over two years ago after a cheating scandal that implicated 133 midshipmen and led to the expulsion of two dozen. He has sought to enforce the honor rules, tighten leave and dress policies and begun a program to make character and integrity a regular part of the academy's four-year academic program.
Even so, a drug possession scandal gripped the academy last October after two midshipmen were found with hallucinogens off campus. An investigation found evidence that more than 20 students had used or sold LSD or marijuana, and disciplinary cases are pending.
Christopher Rounds of Baltimore, one of those expelled from the academy and the Navy in the cheating scandal, was among those charged in the auto theft ring, which authorities said began operating in 1994.
Others charged were two current students, Arthur R. Sherrod of Palestine, Texas, and Joe L. Smith, whose hometown was not disclosed, and two other former midshipmen, Kenneth E. Leak of Westbury, N.Y., and Arthur K. Brown of Pensacola, Fla. A civilian, Marcus Peterson of Baltimore, also was named in the indictment.
Brown, an ensign, is on active duty. Officials did not say whether Leak is still in the Navy.
Smith, although currently a midshipman, is awaiting discharge because of a previous matter, the academy said. An official would not disclose the reason for the discharge.
Each defendant would face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on a federal conspiracy charge if convicted. Except for Smith, the others also are charged with receipt of stolen vehicles in interstate commerce, which carries a maximum possible punishment of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.