UPDATED 8:34 p.m.
Former Harvard student Adam B. Wheeler pleaded guilty Thursday afternoon to all 20 counts against him, admitting that he duped the Harvard admissions office and defrauded the University out of over $40,000 in grants and prizes.
Upon pleading guilty to 20 misdemeanor and felony counts of larceny, identity fraud, falsifying an endorsement or approval, and pretending to hold a degree, Wheeler was sentenced by Associate Justice Diane M. Kottmyer to 10 years probation. He was also ordered to make restitution of $45,806 to Harvard University and to continue the psychological treatment that he had begun since his arrest.
In Middlesex Superior Court, Wheeler conceded today that he dishonestly gained admission to Harvard by fabricating SAT scores, falsifying letters of recommendation, and forging high school and college transcripts. He also admitted to plagiarizing essays and a research proposal that earned him a Hoopes Prize, Sargent Prize, and Rockefeller research grant while he was a Harvard student.
GUILTY AS CHARGED
Assistant District Attorney John Verner said during Thursday’s hearing that Wheeler’s dishonesty not only took money from Harvard’s coffers but harmed unknown students who might have earned the spot at Harvard and the other accolades that Wheeler fraudulently acquired.
"The bigger problem is that what Mr. Wheeler did is he took opportunities from the number two person," Verner said. "That person doesn’t get to say he or she went to Harvard, doesn’t have a Harvard diploma."
"Once he got into Harvard, that apparently wasn’t enough for Mr. Wheeler," Verner added. "Instead of going to Harvard and just simply graduating, he forged documents and plagiarized documents" to compete for several prestigious prizes.
"He wrote himself letters of recommendation from good, hardworking professors," Verner said. "He used their names and their reputations for his own personal gain, to get himself into Harvard."
In a statement to the court, Wheeler said, "I’m deeply sorry that my actions deprived others of the opportunity they rightfully deserved. I’ve been shamed and embarrassed by what I’ve done."
Though Wheeler’s attorney, Steven A. Sussman, requested a shorter period of probation for his client—he named four to five years as an appropriate range—Kottmyer granted the 10-year probation period suggested by the prosecution.
Kottmyer said that the 10-year probation period was necessary given Wheeler’s "compulsive" nature. She noted that Wheeler had continued to perpetrate his frauds even after University officials confronted him about the crimes that he admitted to on Thursday.
After his dishonesty came to light during his senior year, causing him to leave Harvard, Wheeler applied for an internship at McLean Hospital and for transfer admission to Yale, Brown, Stanford, and the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College.
"The history of these offenses indicates not only compulsivity, but a lack of moral compass that requires the lengthy period of probation that’s been requested by the Commonwealth," Kottmyer said.
In his statement before the court, Wheeler said that he has begun to work with a psychologist to better understand "compulsive quality...and ensure that this will never happen again."
Wheeler, 24, sat between his parents before the hearing began and was taciturn throughout the proceedings. When asked for his plea, he uttered an almost inaudible "guilty."
Later, during a series of questions to determine Wheeler’s competency to change his plea, Kottmyer asked him, "Can you tell me in your own words what’s happening today?" Wheeler responded, "Yes."
Pressed to elaborate, Wheeler paused for several seconds. Finally, he said, "I’m entering a guilty plea."
SHAPING THE SENTENCE
Sussman also contested the $45,806 restitution figure requested by the prosecution, but Kottmyer ruled with the prosecution on that issue as well.
Sussman said that Wheeler was willing to be held accountable for repaying the prize money he earned while at Harvard—$4,000 for the Hoopes Prize and $2,000 for the Sargent Prize, both of which he won with plagiarized essays; and $8,000 for the Rockefeller research grant, which he obtained through a plagiarized research plan.
But Sussman said that Wheeler should not pay restitution for the financial aid which he received as a Harvard student because Wheeler did not directly receive those funds.
"Whether it came from Harvard’s endowment or its school fund, it went into another Harvard account," Sussman said of the financial aid money Wheeler had been granted. "It’s all the same entity."
Kottmyer disagreed: "That money was not available to another student who was legitimately at Harvard. It may be that the money would not have been given out that year, but it would remain in the bank, so to speak, for another student."
Verner read to the court a statement from Harvard which said, "We believe that restitution is important...[the money] can be put to use to support deserving Harvard students."
Wheeler might not be able to pay the restitution fee that has been imposed, Sussman noted. "His financial circumstances at this time are obviously minimal. His employment is part time and minimum wage," he said, stating later that Wheeler is doing research work at a nonprofit organization.
Wheeler was jailed upon his arrest in May and initially pleaded not guilty. He remained in prison until he posted his $5,000 bail in mid-June.
Kottmyer cautioned today that if Wheeler violates the terms of his probation—which include avoiding any contact with Harvard and continuing psychological treatment—Wheeler could be sentenced to the statutory maximum penalty for each of the counts against him. Wheeler has been charged with four counts of larceny, each of which carries a potential penalty of up to five years in state prison, in addition to 16 other counts.
Kottmyer formally sentenced Wheeler to two-and-a-half years in prison, with all but 30 days of that sentence suspended for 10 years. Wheeler has already served "36 to 37 days" in jail, according to Verner, so he will not be returning to prison.
Another condition of his probation is that Wheeler is "prohibited from profiting from the facts and circumstances of this case," meaning that he cannot, for instance, write a book about his crimes.
Verner argued that the latter clause was another reason to impose a 10-year probation period.
"I don’t think that three or four years is enough time for memory to pass," he said. "I would hate to see, four years from now, Adam Wheeler being able to write a book about this and to gain a profit."
A HISTORY OF DECEIT
Wheeler arrived at Harvard in 2007 as a sophomore transfer student in Kirkland House. In his application, he claimed to have graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover and to have received perfect grades as a freshman at MIT. In fact, he attended a public high school in Delaware and spent two years at Bowdoin College before being suspended for academic dishonesty.
While at Harvard, Wheeler continued his chain of lies. He built a resume stating that he had written two books on his own and co-authored another four with a Harvard English professor, delivered lectures on Armenian studies, and garnered perfect grades at Harvard. In fact, many of the accolades he listed were unfounded, and according to prosecutors, he received As, Bs, and one D in his Harvard studies.
During his senior year at Harvard, Wheeler applied for the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. According to Verner, he submitted "numerous glowing recommendations from Harvard College professors," along with his inflated resume and a written statement.
"He was an exceptionally strong candidate who, upon completing the final interview, would likely have received Harvard’s endorsement for one or both scholarships," Verner said.
But English professor W. James Simpson, a member of the judging committee, noticed similarities between Wheeler’s work and that of his colleague Stephen J. Greenblatt. This prompted an investigation into Wheeler’s academic history by Kirkland House Resident Dean David A. Smith, Secretary of the Administrative Board John "Jay" L. Ellison, and eventually the Harvard University Police Department and the Middlesex District Attorney’s PACT Unit.
Wheeler was summoned to a disciplinary hearing at Harvard in fall 2009 and opted to leave the College rather than attend the hearing.
Outside the courthouse today, Sussman said, "He is shamed and sorry that he hurt the people who supported him: his professors and his friends."
—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Julie M. Zauzmer can be reached at email@example.com.