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Four diploma mill suspects ask judge to suppress evidence

Four Spokane-area residents accused of operating a fraudulent worldwide diploma mill are attempting to have evidence gathered against them suppressed in U.S. District Court.

Attorneys for Dixie and Steve Randock, of Colbert, and Heidi Kae Lorhan and Roberta Lynn Markishtum, both of Spokane, are asking Judge Lonnie Suko to suppress evidence or dismiss federal criminal charges they face because of what they contend is police misconduct.

All were indicted by a grand jury in October 2005 on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Additionally, the Randocks were indicted on money-laundering charges.

The evidence-suppression hearing, which began Monday, is expected to conclude today, but it’s unclear whether the judge will rule immediately from the bench or render findings later.

The defendants are accused of operating as many as 125 Internet-based diploma mills – selling worthless college and university degrees, and even high school diplomas – to more than 6,000 purchasers, including firefighters, military personnel and government officials who, in some instances, used the bogus degrees for promotions.

A lengthy task force investigation, code-named “Operation Gold Seal” and headed by the U.S. Secret Service, was begun in 2005 following published reports about a Spokane-based operation selling bogus high school and college degrees.

The task force investigation revealed that at least half the phony college degrees from the online universities operated by the Randocks were sold to foreign nationals.

Foreigners – including potential terrorism suspects – who purchased the bogus degrees for a few thousand dollars each were given preference in getting “H1-B” visas, using their educational backgrounds as reasons for legitimate entry into the United States, investigators said.

The operators of the diploma-mill operation, court documents allege, claimed their various universities were accredited by the Board of Education in Liberia.

One of four other defendants who have pleaded guilty in the case admitted getting money from the Randocks to bribe three top-ranking Liberian diplomats in exchange for the so-called accreditation.

One of the bribe payments made in a Washington, D.C., hotel was secretly videotaped by the Secret Service.

At the suppression hearing, defense attorneys argued that evidence gathered against the Randocks should be suppressed “due to outrageous government misconduct” violating the defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protect the right of privacy.

The conduct at issue involves the seizure of several cardboard boxes of documents related to the online diploma mills. The boxes were left in the basement hallway of the Post Falls Professional Building, located at 601 E. Seltice Way, outside a small office leased by the Randocks for part of their online operation.

Secret Service Agent Greg Ross testified Tuesday that he and other investigators determined that bogus diplomas and accompanying fraudulent course transcripts were printed and shipped out of the Post Falls office.

Ross testified that while working in an undercover capacity for the task force, he bought a high school degree before later buying two college degrees, including a Master of Business Administration from James Monroe University.

Later, posing as a Syrian army officer during Internet and e-mail exchanges, Ross purchased an engineering degree from the Spokane-based diploma mill.

Defense attorneys argue that the judge should dismiss all charges or suppress the evidence, which essentially would gut the government’s case.

They contend the “police misconduct” involved investigators giving their search warrant to the building owner, not the occupants of basement Suite 8B, the office adjoining the hallway where the boxes were stacked.

After taking the boxes, agents left a note in the hallway saying “whoever left the boxes … can look for (them) at the county landfill.”

In the government’s response, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Jacobs said the defendants “are asking the court to adopt a theory of the Fourth Amendment akin to J.K. Rowling’s ‘invisible cloak’ – to create at will a shield impenetrable to law enforcement view even in the most-public places.”

At the outset of the hearing, the federal prosecutor told the court that he expected to call more than two dozen witnesses to prove there should have been no reasonable expectation of privacy for items stored in the hallway.

The first three witnesses said the hallway was behind a door that didn’t have a lock, just outside a locked storage vault used by other occupants.

Kevin Kimpton, a certified public accountant who leased an office in the professional building, testified that the area was accessible to the public and frequently was “used to store junk,” including paint cans.

Kimpton was not affiliated with the Randocks’ operation and testified that he stored his accounting records in a locked vault room adjoining the hallway where they stacked their online business records.

The witness said he would have had no reasonable expectation of privacy if he had stored records in the area where the boxes were found.

The case is scheduled for trial June 16.

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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.