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Service academy nominations often withheld from public

May. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The names of many high-school seniors nominated to a taxpayer-funded service academy by members of Congress and others are never disclosed. Pictured: Midshipmen from the Class of 2010 listen to remarks during their graduation and commissioning ceremony.
The names of many high-school seniors nominated to a taxpayer-funded service academy by members of Congress and others are never disclosed. Pictured: Midshipmen from the Class of 2010 listen to remarks during their graduation and commissioning ceremony. (MC1 Chad Runge / Navy)
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WASHINGTON — Rep. Andy Harris’ daughter received a highly competitive nomination to the U.S. Naval Academy earlier this year, but the public, whose tax dollars finance the academy, was never told.

Word got out only because Jessica Harris’ mother shared the news on Facebook, and because Rep. Harris, a Republican representing Maryland’s 1st District, mentioned it as an aside at an April congressional hearing.

The names of many high-school seniors nominated to a taxpayer-funded service academy by members of Congress and others are never disclosed.

Many lawmakers, including Harris, say they withhold nominees’ names to preserve their privacy. But transparency advocates find that rationale surprising, given that it’s an honor to be nominated to a service academy.

“You want things out there (in the open) so that favors can’t be done behind closed doors,” said Joe Newman, a spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight. “Having a limited number of positions at these service academies — and it’s very competitive — you’re hoping that they make decisions based on who they see as the best and brightest and most deserving of these limited spots. By not having the process as transparent as possible, it does open the door for favoritism.”

Harris’ daughter, Jessica, is an academic and track-and-field star at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville. She is among the country’s fastest 800-meter runners and has served in leadership roles on and off the field.

She was a “superb candidate,” said retired Navy Capt. Earle Dashiell, an academy admissions volunteer who said he highly recommended her for an appointment after interviewing her.

“She was a very impressive lady on her own merits,” he said.

Of the five service academies — the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.; the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.; and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. — only the Coast Guard Academy does not require a nomination.

Who nominated Jessica Harris is still unknown. Chris Meekins, Harris’ deputy chief of staff for policy, would say only that she was not among the 10 candidates Rep. Harris nominated for admission to the Naval Academy. Harris doesn’t release the names of his service academy nominees.

“Congressman Harris respects the privacy of all citizens in the district,” Meekins said in a statement. “Because only a small fraction of those nominated by any member of Congress are actually ultimately appointed by a military academy, releasing the names of all nominations could produce hardship or embarrassment for those who do not get appointed.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski or Sen. Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, could have nominated Jessica Harris, but that information wouldn’t be public, either. Mikulski and Cardin release only the names of nominees who accept appointments, and Jessica Harris turned hers down. She will attend the University of Notre Dame and compete on the school’s track and field squad, according to her high school’s web site.

Nominations to service academies also come from military service secretaries, academy superintendents and the vice president. The president directly appoints children from military families to service academies. None of those nominations or appointments is disclosed.

“In order to protect the privacy of individuals who are nominated to the service academies and consistent with previous administration practices and service academy protocols, we don’t release names to the public,” said Keith Maley, a White House spokesman.

Disclosure of nominees’ names is important to assure the public that lawmakers are making nominations based only on merit and not because they want to nominate their own children, the children of major campaign contributors or others in exchange for favors, said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a Washington citizens’ advocacy group.

“I see no reason why any office holder would not want to release those names, even though they justify it under the privacy of their constituents,” he said. “Quite frankly, I would think any constituent would be proud to have their name being nominated by an office holder.”

Delaware lawmakers announce the names of their nominees.

“Just to be nominated, not necessarily win an appointment, is a great honor,” Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said. “I think it’s a good and appropriate thing to do to honor these young people and their families, their schools, for getting a nomination.”

Like many lawmakers, Carper has an interview committee — eight Delawareans with a background in the military or education — that screens applicants and helps him decide whom to nominate. Harris also uses an interview committee, mainly comprised of veterans.

Congress got involved in the process in the 19th Century mostly as a way to maintain civilian control of the military, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Those who attend a service academy get a tuition-free, four year undergraduate education, and academies overseen by the Defense Department give monthly stipends to students. Service academy graduates are commissioned as officers in the active or reserve components of the military or merchant marine for a minimum five years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Who makes nominations and how many they can make is set by statute, but “no laws or regulations govern congressional nomination processes, as long as nominations are submitted by deadlines established by the academies and comply with chamber ethics rules,” the 2012 CRS report states. “Each congressional office with nominating authority may develop its own process for managing its service academy nominations.”

Among members of Maryland’s congressional delegation, two lawmakers — Democratic Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger and Donna Edwards — released names of nominees when asked, although Edwards’ office provided only last names and first initials.

Like Mikulski and Cardin, four other Maryland lawmakers disclose only the names of nominees who have been offered or accepted an appointment to an academy. Democratic Rep. John Delaney doesn’t release any information on nominees.

“Out of respect for the privacy of all involved, we do not publicize this information,” Will McDonald, Delaney’s spokesman, said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings used to announce nominees’ names but now discloses only those who receive an appointment. Some students complained because they weren’t nominated to their first choice among the schools, according to Katie Malone, a special assistant to the congressman. In other cases, parents said they didn’t want their children’s names released to the media because they were under 18.

Carper said his office doesn’t request permission from families to release nominees’ names. Privacy hasn’t been a concern.

“Generally, families are enormously proud of their children to want to do this kind of thing, to serve our country, and (they) feel a sense of honor when they get nominated,” Carper said.

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