February 6, 2008 in City

Judge considers Liberia trip in diploma mill case

By The Spokesman-Review

A federal judge in Spokane heard arguments Tuesday over whether to send a team of defense attorneys, prosecutors and investigators to Africa at taxpayers’ expense as part of the upcoming criminal trial of the accused operators of a diploma mill.

Defense attorneys for Dixie and Steve Randock want to take sworn statements from top-ranking Liberian officials, including a former ambassador who was videotaped taking cash bribes from a diploma-mill co-conspirator in a Washington, D.C., hotel room.

The defense team argues the Liberia trip is essential for a fair trial – to show that the Randocks believed their various online universities were accredited by the National Board of Education in Liberia.

“We need these (Liberian) witnesses to prove they weren’t bribed,” defense attorney Phillip “Dutch” Wetzel told the court.

But federal prosecutor George Jacobs said the Liberian “accreditation” was nothing more than a lie on top of other lies perpetrated by the defendants, who routinely manufactured degrees and transcripts bearing signatures of fictitious university officials, along with counterfeit diplomas from legitimate U.S. universities.

The testimony from the Liberian officials would be “irrelevant, speculative and inadmissible,” Jacobs said.

Arguments on the defense request to travel to the African country came after Judge Lonny Suko issued a 27-page ruling, denying an earlier defense motion to toss out evidence seized in March 2005 by a federal task force in the basement of a Post Falls office building.

That evidence included billing records and names of individuals who purchased college degrees and accompanying transcripts from 125 universities operated by the defendants.

The evidence, contained in cardboard boxes, was in an unsecured basement hallway, accessible to other building tenants and adjoining an office rented by the Randocks.

Investigators got a search warrant to seize the evidence but left those documents with the building owner, not the Randocks.

Using a ruse to keep their investigation secret, agents left a scribbled note on the hallway wall, saying the boxes of documents had been taken to a landfill by an “angry tenant.”

Suko ruled that the government had a “legitimate justification for its deception” to keep an ongoing investigation secret.

“This is not a case where the government engineered and directed the criminal enterprise from start to finish or where the police employed physical or psychological coercion against the defendants,” the judge said.

His ruling was a setback for defense attorneys, who argued the evidence seizure involved “police misconduct” and shouldn’t be used at trial. Suko didn’t immediately rule on the Liberian trip.

The judge scheduled another hearing for Friday and is expected to rule then or within days.

Wetzel attempted to bolster his argument for the trip with testimony from defense investigator Brian R. Breen, a retired Spokane police detective.

He spent 16 days in Liberia late last year, tracking down and interviewing some of the witnesses.

Breen hired a driver and a bodyguard during his trip to the war-torn African nation, but he testified that he’s been to other places “where I was more concerned about my safety.”

He said he saw U.N. peace-keeping troops and bomb-scarred roads. Breen also said that he didn’t see much evidence of Western influence and was frequently approached by beggars, “but my impression was they really liked Americans.”

Wetzel also used a telephone conference to elicit testimony from Miguel Caridad, an assistant federal defender in Miami, who has made three trips to Liberia in preparing a defense for Charles Emmanuel, who is accused in the United States of torturing people in Liberia between 1999 and 2003.

“I thought it was very safe,” Caridad said of his trips to Liberia.

Caridad was interviewing victim-witnesses, not Liberian officials who may have broken U.S. laws by accepting bribes, Jacobs countered, calling U.S. Secret Service Agent John Neirinckx to testify.

Neirinckx, the lead investigator in the diploma mill case, testified that his consultation with other U.S. officials has led him to conclude there would be “safety concerns” for U.S. Justice Department personnel if they went to Liberia.

The defendants, scheduled to stand trial in June, have said that in the event of a ruling in their favor, they would waive their right to travel to Liberia to give their depositions.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email