HACKENSACK, N.J. – Maybe you nudged a checker to a more favorable square when your opponent wasn’t looking. Perhaps you claimed your 5-year-old daughter was 4 to get the under-5 discount.

You wouldn’t be caught dead reading “Beowulf,” so maybe you copied the homework from an obliging friend. Or perhaps your resume says you graduated magna cum laude, when it was really only cum laude.

Maybe you’re a CEO who just got advance word of bad news that would punch a fatal hole in your company’s stock price, so you dumped your shares while they still held value.

You had a good reason for doing what you did. Or so you thought.

Cheating is everywhere. Wherever there’s competition, there’s somebody hazarding a shortcut, parlaying an advantage, taking things one step further. In business, in politics, in sports, in academics. No pillar of American society stands immune.

“Sometimes you feel like a schnook if you don’t,” says Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers public policy professor.

Sammy Sosa says it was an accident. Jayson Blair says he’s sorry. ImClone founder Sam Waksal admits he cheated and lied.

They all had good reasons for doing what they did. At least they thought they did.

Marty Barnes had a city to run and couldn’t be bothered with details. The three students who got bounced from New Jersey’s Dwight-Englewood High School in January for cheating on the SAT thought they had a good reason, too. Kids these days need an edge for a shot at an Ivy League education.

When 4,500 high school students were asked by Don McCabe of Rutgers if they’d ever cheated on tests or exams, roughly three-quarters admitted they had. When McCabe asked them if they’d ever cheated on homework, 97 percent said yes.

That’s not a typo. Ninety-seven percent.

Cheating is everywhere. You think this is new? It’s not. Jacob cheated Esau out of his father’s blessing, right there in Genesis 27. Jacob went on to become a revered man, one of the top guys in the Old Testament. This is how he got his start: He cheated his brother.

You think this is a symptom of the decline and fall of Western Civilization?

“People aren’t as outraged by cheating as they used to be,” says private eye Al Cross, who’s handled dozens of “matrimonials” – cheating spouse cases. “People are more titillated by it. TV portrays cheating as glamorous. Remember the days of the scarlet “A’ on the chest? Morality has changed.”

American business has a long, quotable history of hucksterism, from P.T. Barnum (“There’s a sucker born every minute”) to Leona Helmsley (“Only the little people pay taxes”).

In the 19th century, snake oil salesmen roamed the hinterland, selling feckless potions to unsuspecting bumpkins. Oklahoma was settled by cheaters – the “Sooners,” who jumped the line to nab the best land.

In the early 20th, robber barons cornered markets and fought government trust-busting. In the 1980s, junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, and hostile takeovers were madcap innovations in American capitalism – before some of their shadier practitioners were locked up.

Today, the pressure for business leaders to succeed has built to a white-hot intensity, says Phyllis Davis, author of “E2: Using the Power of Ethics and Etiquette in American Business.”

“The more corporate culture demands results in quarterly earnings, the more likely people will take shortcuts,” Davis says.

Ever heard the expression “cheaters never prosper?” It’s a lie. Cheaters prosper – until they get caught.

“Cheating can pay,” says Wayne Eastman, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney.

Maybe that’s why the list of recent corporate infamies runs as long as a serpent’s tail.

There’s former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow, who used a variety of “clandestine transactions” to mislead investors, according to prosecutors. There’s Waksal, founder of ImClone, facing up to seven years behind bars when he’s sentenced Tuesday on bank and securities fraud charges.

There’s former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers, who is expected to be implicated in the company’s fraud for the first time in a report commissioned by the company. There’s Dennis Kozlowski, the Tyco tycoon who is charged with looting the firm of $600 million and bilking the State of New York out of more than $1 million in sales tax.

And that’s just the sour cream skimmed off the top of corporate America.

As for the little fish, they’re eating each other. Cheating has spread its icy tentacles to eBay, the Internet auction site. Bogus escrow accounts and other schemes have cost eBay consumers an estimated $37 million, the Federal Trade Commission reported last month.

The only thing worse than cheating is lying to cover it up, former DA Eastman says.

“In many ways what galls people is someone who won’t admit fault,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said for coming clean promptly.”

In politics as well as business, cheating is a wound, but lying kills. The worlds of business leaders and politicians are fiercely competitive, with the attendant temptation to cheat.

American politics has a tradition of it. Tammany Hall pols handed out patronage jobs like lollipops. Electoral vote-buying in the 1876 Rutherford Hayes-Sam Tilden matchup made the brouhaha over hanging chads look like a Junior League picnic. Political machines put the squeeze on Kansas City, Chicago, and Jersey City.

Arguably, today’s climate is less collegial to cheaters. Still fuzzy, however, is the exact location of the moral line, the one politicians don’t dare cross if they want to keep on the sunny side.

“Politicians are never sure where the line is,” says Rosenthal, the Rutgers University public policy professor. “The media decide, and their opponents decide. So it’s always moving.”

Some standards are written in stone: Don’t solicit bribes.

But that’s what former Paterson, N.J., Mayor Marty Barnes did. Convicted of graft, he was sentenced in April to 37 months in prison. He may be joined there by another moral drifter, ex-Essex County Executive James W. Treffinger, a possible U.S. Senate nominee last year who pleaded guilty to fraud in May.

“Some politicians who cheat are just corrupt,” Rosenthal says. “Not many, but there are some. Others have an arrogance to them – they believe they can get away with it. A third group is just plain stupid.”

Ben Johnson may have been all three. Remember Ben? The world’s fastest man?

The Canadian sprinter stunned the world by running 100 meters in 9.79 seconds. Oops. Busted. Turned out Ben Johnson was the world’s fastest steroid abuser.

Corrupt? Arrogant? Stupid? Sure, but Johnson is just one joker who got caught, says Jay Coakley, author of “Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies.”

“How many athletes are using performance-enhancing substances?” Coakley says. “The answer is, everyone who’s willing to.”

Who is willing to pollute their bodies for short-term gain is the $64,000 question that hangs like the bat of Damocles over Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa. His corked bat, illegal but of questionable utility, distracts us from the central issue in sports cheating. After Mark McGwire, Sosa’s freckle-faced alter ego in the home run orgy of 1998, was discovered to be using androstenedione, a supplement that’s legal in baseball but banned in other sports, the question became: Who else uses? Can we trust any of these guys to play it straight?

“Every athlete looks for an edge,” says Charles Maher, Cleveland Indians team psychologist. “Some are conflicted about it. They want a competitive advantage but they don’t want to damage themselves.”

Maher estimates that 15 percent of major leaguers are cheating on a regular basis – up from about 10 percent five years ago.

Besides using steroids, Maher says, players tinker with equipment in various nefarious ways.

Gaylord Perry, a Hall of Fame pitcher who won 314 games over 22 years in the big leagues, would know something about that. He was long suspected of throwing a ball doctored with any of a variety of icky stuff – spit, Vaseline, tobacco juice – in order to make his pitches do unpredictable things.

“He should be in the Hall of Fame with a tube of KY Jelly attached to his plaque,” longtime manager Gene Mauch once said.

“I don’t ever recall throwing a spitball,” Perry says in a phone interview, a twinkle in his voice. “I just needed to make batters think I was throwing one.”

Perry’s aim, if you believe his playful denial, was to distract hitters enough to ensure their failure. He reinforced that by shaking his opponents’ hands before games with a gob of goo in his palm.

“You take any advantage you can,” Perry says. “It’s a necessary evil.”

Maher says most sports cheaters are either younger athletes trying to establish themselves, or more mature players trying to hang on despite the deterioration of their skills.

Similar demographics describe the types of students who cheat on exams, says Don McCabe of the Rutgers Business School.

“The better students cheat,” McCabe says. “And then there are the ones who cheat just to survive.”

By McCabe’s survey figures, the number of high schoolers who copy someone else’s work and pass it off as their own has doubled since 1963. McCabe cautions that an increasing willingness to confess transgression may have skewed his results.

Then there’s the insidious influence of the Internet.

“Before the Internet, you had to find a book and sit there and copy out of it,” McCabe says. “It was an elongated process, and it made you feel guiltier. The Internet has made it easy to plagiarize.”

The Internet has also made it easier for teachers to catch plagiarists. Teachers at Dwight-Englewood, scene of January’s SAT cheating scandal, log onto www.turnitin.com to check the originality of students’ papers. The Web site can comb through random passages to determine if they’ve been published before.

“Our teachers spend a lot of time checking references,” headmaster Ralph Sloan says.

Dwight-Englewood students are required to sign statements on their assignments attesting that work was theirs alone.

“The kids who don’t cheat are highly offended by those who do,” Sloan says.

But there’s one thing students won’t do. Rat.

“There’s an overwhelming code of silence in adolescent culture,” Sloan says. “The only thing worse than a cheater is a stool pigeon.”

Staff Writer Kevin DeMarrais contributed to this report.

(c) 2003, The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

Visit The Record Online at http://www.northjersey.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

Bernard Ebbers

AP-NY-06-09-03 0612EDT

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