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Copycat diploma mill charges filed

A federal task force that’s three years into investigating a Spokane-based diploma mill ring filed new charges this week against a man who is accused of running a copycat online university after working for Dixie Randock.

Richard H. Cleigh is scheduled to appear today before Senior U.S. District Court Judge Frem Nielsen after being charged with one count of wire fraud and a second count of mail fraud.

The 55-year-old Spokane man was tentatively scheduled to enter a guilty plea, the court docket shows, but it didn’t specify whether he will plead to one or both counts.

If he enters a plea, a written plea agreement would likely detail how he set up his own online university.

Assistant U.S. Attorney George J.C. Jacobs, the lead prosecutor for the “Operation Gold Seal” investigation of Spokane-based diploma mills, said Wednesday he couldn’t comment on the new case but would offer details when Cleigh appears in court.

As part of an expected plea agreement, Cleigh likely will seek “substantial assistance” and the prospects for a lighter sentence by agreeing to testify for the prosecution in the forthcoming criminal trial of Randock and three other remaining defendants. They were indicted in October 2005 and now are scheduled to stand trial in June.

Between Aug. 1, 2003, and Jan. 24, 2004, charging documents say Cleigh “created and operated an Internet diploma mill under the fictitious name “Saint John University of St. Vincent & The Grenadines.”

As part of the alleged scheme, Cleigh communicated with consumers using the name “Brother Andrew, creating the false impression that he was a member of a religious organization,” the documents say.

The charges don’t disclose how many degrees Cleigh sold or how much money he collected.

“Cleigh falsely advertised that St. John University was founded in 1862 and was a private, nonsecular university with a long and rich tradition of excellence,” the charges say. Cleigh also claimed St. John was “the world leader in online degree evaluation” and that its degrees were “fully legal and valid.”

In truth, the charges say, St. John University “was neither an existent or legitimate academic entity.”

The mail fraud count charge against Cleigh is linked to a separate, unrelated scheme in which he offered to sell South African Krugerrands.

“He offered to sell non-existent gold coins to unwitting eBay purchasers,” the charging document says.

It lists 16 eBay customers who mailed $19,628 to Cleigh “who accepted their money but never sent the gold coins that had been promised.”