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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Underhanded Undergraduates

May-June 2002

Their friends began to ask questions long before the prosecutors did. Suzanne M. Pomey '02 and Randy J. Gomes '02 seemed to be spending money a little too freely—perhaps it was the $500 color-screen cell phone, the open bar at T.G.I. Friday's for Suzanne's twenty-first birthday party, the shopping sprees, or the flat-screen television set that made them wonder. Whatever it was, the two Winthrop House seniors were certainly living the high life. On January 11, the other shoe dropped.

Suzanne Pomey and Randy Gomes enter their plea
Suzanne Pomey and Randy Gomes enter their pleas on February 5.
Harvard Crimson photograph

Middlesex County prosecutors handed down an indictment alleging that Gomes and Pomey had funded their "lavish lifestyle" with more than $91,000 stolen from the funds of Hasty Pudding Theatricals (HPT) while Pomey served as business manager and producer of the nation's oldest theatrical organization. On February 5, both pled not guilty to a single charge of larceny over $250.

Prosecutors allege that the two used the Hasty Pudding's credit-card machine to credit their own bank accounts on at least two dozen occasions in the course of 15 months with amounts ranging from $213.16 up to $9,870—an average of about $1,500 a week. The thefts went unnoticed until the Pudding's new co-producers took over last summer. Lena Demaskiah '03 found a large discrepancy in the group's financial records and began her own investigation; after discovering the scale of the theft and the possible culprits, she went to the Harvard University Police Department. Detective Sergeant Richard Mederos interviewed both suspects on September 24, and according to court records, both admitted to their role in the crime. Mederos obtained a search warrant and one night last fall, HUPD officers backed a van up to the Winthrop House gate and loaded it full of alleged contraband from Gomes's room. Court papers also allege that the stolen funds financed shopping sprees and trips to New York City, Chicago, Palm Springs, and Cape Cod.

Despite the high stakes, the case remained a closely guarded secret among Pudding executives. On the same day the executives announced this year's Man and Woman of the Year—the highlight of each year's performance season—the Middlesex County grand jury completed its indictment. The news broke just a week later as the Crimson trumpeted, "Two Pudding Members Indicted."

As the story was picked up by the national press, campus editorials commented on the thefts, the apparent brazenness of the two accused students, and the pressures on those who aspire to the campus's moneyed circles. Gomes, a native of Plymouth, Massachusetts, who allegedly represented himself on occasion as a relative of Plummer professor of Christian morals Peter J. Gomes, proved to be an elusive figure; he had been involved in campus theater and gay organizations and worked for Let's Go, the Harvard Student Agencies' (HSA) travel-guide series. According to court records, the scheme had been hatched to help cover his drug habit, which had grown from ecstasy in his freshman year to crystal methamphetamine. In all, prosecutors say $22,549.22 was transferred into Pomey's accounts and $68,440.74 to Gomes's accounts, beginning while Pomey was business manager and continuing through her term as co-producer of HPT 153, Fangs for the Memories.

Despite the claim that the scheme had started with Gomes, Pomey became the center of attention. In the past two years, she had evolved into a campus celebrity: a former Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) cabinet member and president of the Alpha Kappa Theta sorority, cofounder of the new female social club Isis, and—most famously—the girl Anthony Hopkins French-kissed during last year's Pudding Man of the Year event. Last December, the Crimson's Fifteen Minutes (FM) magazine selected Pomey, a Kentucky native and the daughter of a retired Army officer and automobile saleswoman, as one of its "15 Most Intriguing Seniors" for her apparent mastery of Harvard's social life. One friend told FM that Pomey's involvement in Harvard life stemmed from "one part genuine interest, two parts pursuit of fame."

"Since to most people, she seemed to be at the top of the Harvard social ladder, her fall took on the character of a morality play, in which someone climbed too high thanks to ill-gotten gains and then took a fall," said Ross G. Douthat '02, who wrote about the Pomey case in a Crimson op-ed. "I keep thinking of the Great Gatsby....Like Gatsby, she started out middle-class in the Midwest, came east, and tried to spend her way to popularity and social success. And it worked, as it worked with Gatsby, as long as the money was there."

Pomey with Man of the Year Anthony Hopkins
Pomey with Man of the Year Anthony Hopkins
Jon Chase / Harvard News Office

Pomey and Gomes's alleged scheme is hardly unprecedented in recent College history. In 1993, the new chairs of Evening with Champions (EWC), Eliot House's annual benefit skating program, discovered more than $115,000 missing from the group's bank account. Two former EWC executives were indicted: David G. Sword '93 on one count of larceny over $250 and Charles K. Lee '93 on 58 counts of larceny over $250 and eight counts of larceny under $250. Both were convicted and Lee served a year in prison. Scandal hit again in 1995, when students at Harvard Yearbook Publications and the Krokodiloes a cappella group were charged with smaller thefts. Most recently, former Currier House Committee treasurer Natalie J. Szekeres '97 was indicted for embezzling $7,550 of House funds for personal use.

Still, such thefts must be kept in perspective. Millions of dollars flow through the coffers of large organizations like the Crimson, PBHA, and HSA each year without incident, and hundreds of groups maintain smaller budgets. "I still believe that all but a minute percentage of Harvard students are honest and handle money responsibly," said associate dean of the College David P. Illingworth '71.

Nevertheless, the College has gradually tightened its regulation of student funds in the last decade—although its guidelines still leave plenty of loopholes. The dean's office requires an annual proposed budget (it does not actually follow up on whether those figures prove realistic), and ever since the EWC theft, the College has required each group's treasurer to attend a College-run seminar on budgeting and finances. Now the College may be tightening its oversight further. In the spring of 2000, Illingworth approached Harvard Risk Management and Audit Services (RMAS), the University's internal auditor, to ask about the possibility of auditing select student groups. So far, RMAS has conducted one audit—officials won't say of which group—and may begin auditing up to five student groups per year. "Now that the Hasty Pudding incident has occurred, I intend to see that more budgets are more carefully scrutinized than in the past," Illingworth said. The Pudding, too, has revamped its financial system with the help of RMAS, the show's producers wrote in the e-mail that informed its alumni of the case. EWC similarly reformed its financing after the 1993 theft, and is now audited annually.

 

More difficult to change than accounting practices, however, will be the student culture that encourages free spending and easy money. Entrance and acceptance into the culture that exists in many clubs, especially elite social organizations like the Pudding, the all-male final clubs, or the newer all-female groups like the Bee, all but require money. "However meritocratic our University may be, its elite social circles require considerable wealth for admission," Ross Douthat said in an interview. Most students can pass the BMW- and SUV-lined final-club parking lots and the numerous Burberry scarves in the Yard without noticing or caring, but some become obsessed with breaking into those circles.

Some lower- or middle-class students do have trouble adjusting to life in a place that includes a moneyed elite, according to Diane A. Weinstein, a counselor at the Bureau of Study Counsel who studies the special pressures facing such students. She suggested that some of the issues may stem from unfamiliarity with, and lack of guidance in, navigating "high society." During the course of college, she explained, students sometimes find themselves saying, "I can't ever really go back to my family's way of life, but I have no [role] models—or only a few." This realization leads some students to feel like frauds or aliens because they are trying to become part of a foreign culture.

"There are also the tensions between needing to earn money during the term and partaking of the rich extracurricular opportunities here," Weinstein said. Students on work-study and financial aid may not have as much time (or money) to socialize as their richer peers—and sometimes, that extra time or money can mean the difference between acceptance into a meritocratic group or into one of the elite campus clubs. "It's not that students are forced to spend, but money does make acceptance that much easier," said Jordana R. Lewis '02, who also wrote about the crime. As students have analyzed the alleged Pudding thefts, one theory suggests that Pomey and Gomes thought that flashy displays of money would open doors otherwise closed to them. "The most fascinating thing to me," Lewis said, "was the end to which they put the money: to try to buy...friends and create a history of themselves that didn't exist."

 

Where the Pudding case goes now is unclear; at their first court appearance in February, in a Cambridge courtroom filled with journalists and Pudding executives, Gomes and Pomey were both released on their own recognizance. Both have already repaid the money allegedly stolen. Sources close to the investigation say that the two are likely to accept a plea bargain involving either a suspended sentence or probation in exchange for avoiding jail time. Their lawyers could not be reached for comment. More complicated, though, is what kind of future, if any, Gomes and Pomey have at Harvard.

Although both enrolled for the spring semester and will presumably complete their graduation requirements on time for June's commencement, Harvard typically withholds a degree if there are pending criminal charges against a student. Once the criminal charges are discharged, the College's administrative board takes up the case. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has long been wary of expelling students; the most recently publicized case, in 1999, involved Joshua M. Elster '00, who was dismissed from the College after pleading guilty in Middlesex County Superior Court to six felony counts stemming from a rape case. In the only previous case of similar size, the EWC theft, both Sword and Lee had graduated before the thefts came to light and the College has not moved to revoke their degrees.

Douthat, though, said he believes that the students accused of such thefts often are merely exercising the traits that got them into Harvard in the first place. "Harvard is filled with people like Suzanne—not to the same pathological degree, but people who have the same kind of 'take-no-prisoners' ambition," he explained. "After all, the whole concept of the 'American Dream' is built on the idea of clambering your way upwards in life—it's just that Harvard, because it attracts the best and the brightest, tends to have people who are particularly good at such clambering."

~Garrett M. Graff

Garrett M. Graff '03, a history concentrator, is executive editor of the Harvard Crimson.