Case Stirs Criticism of Naval Academy Chief
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Five months after he was cleared of a rape charge, the U.S. Naval Academy's former star quarterback is shuffling papers at the Washington Navy Yard, awaiting word on whether he will be allowed to serve as an officer -- or kicked out of the academy on lesser offenses and forced to pay back $136,000 for his education there.
The case of midshipman Lamar S. Owens Jr. remains front and center in the Naval Academy community, spurring an ugly battle between the superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, and academy graduates who accuse Rempt of bias.
In letters written to Navy officials, heated comments posted on message boards and affidavits submitted to Owens's defense attorneys, alumni allege that the superintendent remains convinced that Owens, 23, raped a female midshipmen, despite a jury's decision to the contrary. Their campaign has broadened to question Rempt's stewardship of the academy at a time when the school is under increased scrutiny from Congress.
"The Owens case, I think, stands at the heart of what many and most alumni hold dear: honor and integrity," said Pete Savage, a 1963 graduate involved in the campaign.
On Friday, the academy said Rempt has removed himself from any further consideration of Owens's legal case. Typically, he would have to affirm convictions for lesser offenses, which in this case are conduct unbecoming an officer and violating a military protective order.
In a written statement, an academy spokesman said Rempt had "voluntarily relinquished his role" after Owens's defense team raised the allegations, which the statement called "untrue," about "an appearance of a lack of neutrality."
But the statement did not say whether Rempt will remove himself from the administrative decision on Owens's future in the Navy, a move that Owens's attorney, Reid H. Weingarten, is pursuing.
The alumni argue that Rempt's overzealousness in prosecuting high-profile sexual assault cases is part of his effort to advance an agenda designed to appease Congress and women's groups demanding a crackdown on sexual assault and harassment at military academies.
They say that in unjustly targeting a prominent black midshipman who was a leader not only on the gridiron but also in church, Rempt has unintentionally set back another social cause: the advancement of African Americans in the Navy.
The case has also exposed a fault line of opposition from alumni who believe academy standards have been lowered under Rempt's watch. They point not only to high-profile cases involving drinking and sexual indiscretions but also to a general lack of decorum displayed on a much-viewed Internet video of midshipmen marching through the streets of Annapolis on the way to a recent Navy football game, appearing -- in the words of one alumnus who commented online -- like "undisciplined louts in uniform."
"People are saying, 'Why have an academy anymore?' " Savage said.
In the eye of the storm is Rempt, who came to the academy with a reputation as a leader in advancing the role of women in the military. Rempt has since won praise for targeting what he identified as three major related problems at the academy: alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct and honor violations.