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Endemic Lying and Cheating Lead to ‘Jungle’ Law

FullTextImage/img/@altNassau County, N.Y., District Attorney Kathleen Rice opened the second day of VMI’s Leadership Conference. -- VMI Photo by John Robertson.

The 500-seat Gillis Theater on the VMI post was filled to capacity with high school and college students and teachers from across the nation as VMI’s second biennial Leadership Conference, “Cheating, Lying and Honor in America’s High Schools, Colleges and Universities,” opened yesterday. The conference continues today, as the current generation of students takes the lead in discussing and presenting strategies for encouraging academic and personal integrity.

LEXINGTON, Va., March 6, 2012 – They’re rich. They’re famous. And they lie.

They’re young. Their futures are wide open. And they cheat.

Investigative journalist James B. Stewart and Nassau County, N.Y., District Attorney Kathleen Rice opened the second day of VMI’s Leadership Conference with discussion of lying and cheating on a grand scale.

Stewart has written about Martha Stewart, Major League baseball player Barry Bonds, Bush administration adviser Scooter Libby, and Ponzi scheme operator Bernie Madoff. They all have something in common: convictions for lying about their own illegal actions.

Rice is prosecuting an SAT cheating scandal on Long Island, N.Y., which, though it originated at Great Neck North High School, has proved to be indicative of a systemic, rather than a local problem.

“The consequences,” said Stewart, “are vast.”

He described how the rich, famous, powerful people he has written about lie because they are surrounded by people who never contradict them and because they think they are going to get away with it. But the willingness of lawyers, accountants, trainers, and friends to lie under oath could break the U.S. system of justice.

“Our legal system is one big honor code,” said Stewart. “We ask citizens to take the witness stand … and then actually tell the truth. It’s breathtaking when you think about it. It’s nothing but a commitment to honesty, and it has worked for centuries.”

The cost of the lies is high, he said.

“It took almost 10 years to bring Bonds to trial because almost everyone in that case lied. It cost American taxpayers millions and millions of dollars … sucking resources that could have been devoted to more important cases.”

Noting that the alternative to the rule of law is law of the jungle, Stewart touched on an issue of particular interest to the cadets in the audience: the tension between loyalty to one’s comrades – Brother Rats at VMI – and loyalty to one’s values. In the cases he’s seen, that “misguided” sense of loyalty runs only in one direction: from the poor to the rich, from the weak to the powerful.

The powerful demand the truth as they see it. That’s lying at the top.

Rice has been investigating cheating at the bottom, in a case that started with school rumors heard by administrators who did the right thing. But once they had identified and punished the students who had paid college student Sam Eshaghoff to take the SAT for them, they had to turn to the district attorney’s office for his prosecution.

She surprised many when she made the hard choice to prosecute the students as well.

“I was criticized at the time,” said Rice. “[They said,] How can you prosecute these kids? It’s not their fault. There’s too much pressure at these schools.”

But Rice was looking at it another way: “Without the students who paid him, you don’t have a Sam Eshaghoff. … We’re beginning to see a culture of ‘What’s the big deal?’ So they cheated.”

But Rice wanted to see real change; she wanted to see SAT and ACT testing made secure. So she expanded her investigation and soon found the cheating going on at other schools: “Other kids paying, other Sam Eshaghoffs.”

“Every single one of those kids who paid someone to take the SAT for them took a spot away from a kid who didn’t pay someone,” she explained. “You have to have a level playing field.”

And though a level playing field with fair opportunities for all is important, Rice also sees greater implications.

“The bottom line in all of this is what kind of kids do we want to raise? What kind of people do we want as friends? What kind of colleagues do we want as we enter our professional life? Do you want to spend your life defending friends who are cheaters?”

Conference participants were called to consider where the beginning of the end of the problem should be.

“What can we do about it?” Stewart had asked, answering, “It has to start at the top. We have to have a commitment to honesty at the highest level.”

But a commitment to honesty at the highest level begins long before.

“If we as a society can’t teach 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds that cheating is wrong, and that cheating doesn’t pay, what kind of society are we going to have?” said Rice. “At this young age, if we cannot teach kids that cheating doesn’t pay, then you are looking at corrupt politicians, corrupt Wall Street executives.”

Echoing a sentiment expressed again and again by conference speakers, Stewart said, “It is time for each and everyone one of us to start stopping it today.”

–Sherri Tombarge