By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Scores of people in Maryland, Virginia and the District are on a list compiled by federal investigators of more than 9,600 people who might have purchased fraudulent high school diplomas and college degrees, including some who appear to work in government and the military.
Federal authorities are studying the list for U.S. employees who might have purchased a diploma or degree from an Internet-based diploma mill that operated out of Washington state, said Brandon A. Montgomery, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Matched names will be sent to the agencies where the person works for possible administrative action, he said.
Names on the list might include some people who only inquired about purchasing a degree. The list includes at least 160 people in Virginia, 117 in Maryland and 17 in the District. At least 20 of those appear to be military personnel, and at least 10 appear to be government employees or contractors. Of 9,612 names listed, 5,212 are without state identification.
"Literally you could have someone using a diploma in an extremely harmful way if they are not properly trained," said Kristen Nelson, director of communications and government relations for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, where the state legislature this year passed a law making it illegal to fraudulently use a phony degree.
The Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper obtained the list and posted it on its Web site on Monday, the Associated Press reported. The Washington Post obtained it from a state government official on condition of anonymity. Efforts by The Post this week to contact people on the list for comment were unsuccessful.
The list, which has not been made public by the government, was compiled during an eight-month federal investigation in Washington state into an international diploma operation that was run from 1999 through 2005. It sold more than $6 million worth of phony high school diplomas and undergraduate and graduate degrees to people in more than 130 countries.
According to court documents in Washington state, the conspirators also sold counterfeit diplomas and academic products purporting to be from legitimate academic institutions, such as the University of Maryland, George Washington University, the University of Missouri and Texas A&M University.
Those operating the scam created numerous phony schools, including St. Regis University, Ameritech University, Pan America University, James Monroe University, James Monroe High School, All Saints American University and New Manhattan University. Without doing any academic work, their customers could purchase such degrees as a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of science, a master of arts, a master of science and a doctor of philosophy.
Eight people have been or will soon be sentenced in the scam. Dixie Ellen Randock, 58, a leader of the diploma mill, was sentenced this month in Washington state to three years in prison for conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. Her daughter was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, and Randock's husband will be sentenced Aug. 5. Others involved will be sentenced later this year.
Investigators said the use of phony degrees poses national security and other risks, with some people seeking to use them to facilitate entry into the United States. Higher education advocates who monitor diploma mills tried to persuade the federal government to release the list, saying it is important to ensure that no one is using the degrees fraudulently and that those who buy phony degrees are not victims. It is not a crime to buy a phony degree, but it can be to use one fraudulently to obtain a job, a pay increase or other benefit.
"I think this is a real wake-up call to people who think diploma mills are a small problem," said Alan Contreras, administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization and an expert on the issue. "Diploma mills are a huge problem. They are an international problem. It doesn't matter where they are operating from."
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the District-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said it will take time for officials and watchdog agencies to review the list and identify who is on it and what jobs they might have obtained with the use of a phony degree.
"It's one of those crimes that is low on the priority list because people think, 'Who cares?' " Nassirian said. "I think once we fully absorb this list, we will find some pretty compelling reasons why we should care. . . . My guess is we are going to find some really scary stories."
Homeland Security officials had refused to release the list but provided it to state attorneys general last weekend. Education officials in Virginia, Maryland and the District said yesterday they had not seen the list.
The case was investigated by a task force involving more than a half-dozen federal agencies, including the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Washington state. Court documents show that investigators served search warrants in the case after it was discovered that many of the phony degrees were purchased by people in Saudi Arabia.
In addition to Virginia, 11 states, including Texas, Oregon, New Jersey, Washington and Nevada, forbid fraudulent use of phony degrees, Contreras said.
"People who buy diplomas from diploma mills are not victims; they are co-conspirators," Nassirian said. "People who fall prey to shoddy trade schools, they are victims. They think they are going to a real school, and they get ripped off. But people who pick up the phone and call and order themselves a master's degree in nursing know they are not nurses."
Post database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.