Harvard con man says he’s sorry

Pleads guilty to larceny, fraud, gets probation

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By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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WOBURN — Adam B. Wheeler, the 24-year-old accused of conning his way into Harvard by fabricating a stellar academic record, apologized yesterday after pleading guilty to larceny, identity fraud, and other charges.

“I’m ashamed and embarrassed by what I’ve done,’’ said the lanky young man, standing with his shoulders hunched and head bowed, his voice barely above a whisper, as he addressed Judge Diane Kottmyer in Middlesex Superior Court. “As much as possible, I want to put this behind me and move forward.’’

Wheeler, whose parents sat stoically through the proceedings, was sentenced to 10 years of probation and ordered to pay restitution of $45,806 to Harvard for the prize money, grants, and financial aid he received by weaving an intricate web of lies that included plagiarized work.

Kottmyer ordered Wheeler to stay away from Harvard and other institutions he defrauded, as well as from the professors whose signatures he forged on false letters of recommendation. She prohibited him from representing himself as a Harvard student or graduate, ordered him to continue receiving therapy, and barred him from seeking to profit from his story.

“These cases indicate not only a compulsivity but a lack of moral compass,’’ Kottmyer said. The terms of the probation, she said, “enhance the likelihood that he will in fact move on and lead a law-abiding life.’’

Wheeler’s guilty pleas marked the close of one of the most high-profile cases of academic fraud in recent history, but yesterday’s hearing shed little light on the mystery of why and how Wheeler pulled off the charade.

“There is no answer to why he did this,’’ Wheeler’s lawyer, Steven Sussman, said after the hearing. “That remains to be seen. That’s why he’s getting help. There was a compulsive component to his behavior.’’

Wheeler was arrested and indicted in May after an investigation showed he had spent the last three years plagiarizing the writings of others while collecting awards for his academic prowess both at Harvard and, before that, at Bowdoin College in Maine.

“This wasn’t a one-time crime of passion,’’ Assistant District Attorney John Verner said, arguing for the lengthy probation period. “This wasn’t a one-time mistake.’’

Verner said that Wheeler’s actions had harmed other applicants.

“The money itself is one thing,’’ he said. “The bigger problem is he took opportunity from the Number 2 person who would have won the award’’ or a spot at Harvard.

Harvard sent the court a statement, which was read aloud by Verner: “Mr. Wheeler’s acts of deception and fraud not only harmed Harvard University directly, but also undermined the public perception of integrity in higher education nationally and around the world. . . . Were he permitted to profit from the notoriety he already has gained as a result of his flagrant dishonesty, all of higher education would continue to be negatively impacted.’’

Wheeler, a Delaware native, has been out on bail since June and has been working a part-time, minimum wage job as a researcher for a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts.

“He is very interested in nonprofit work. He has always been interested in that,’’ his mother, Lee Wheeler, said yesterday.

Wheeler, whose brown hair was combed neatly to the side and who dressed in a tweed blazer, black slacks, striped shirt, and a tie with silver elephants on it, told the court that he believes he has the character to be productive and honest, and that his goal is to “fulfill my potential by positively contributing to the well-being of the less fortunate in our community.’’ He said he is working with a therapist to avoid behaviors that lead to his fabrications and to ensure that “this never happens again.’’

“I’m sorry for . . . causing embarrassment and emotional upheaval for the people who knew and worked with me and believed in my ability to succeed,’’ he said.

Wheeler faked his way into Harvard as a transfer student by doctoring his College Board scores and forging letters of recommendation and transcripts from MIT and the prep school Phillips Exeter Academy, neither of which he attended. He had, in fact, been suspended from Bowdoin for plagiarizing an essay his sophomore year.

He was expelled from Harvard in October 2009, during his senior year, after he applied for Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships using a fake straight-A transcript and work he plagiarized from a Harvard professor, according to prosecutors. Harvard officials later discovered Wheeler had won two university writing prizes using a plagiarized submission.

The expulsion did not stop Wheeler. He subsequently applied as a Harvard transfer student to Stanford, Brown, Yale, and a Williams College maritime program. He was admitted by Stanford and Williams, where officials said they discovered he had fooled them after learning of Wheeler’s alleged fraud at Harvard from news reports.

Wheeler declined to speak to the press, but his lawyer said Wheeler considers himself fortunate not to be back in jail.

Tracy Jan can be reached at