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Buyers of fake diplomas shielded

Sun., July 6, 2008, midnight

Operators of a Spokane diploma mill are heading to federal prison, while senior Justice Department officials say they are going to keep secret the names of the 10,815 buyers who used the bogus and counterfeit degrees to get jobs, promotions and enhanced retirements.

James A. McDevitt, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, reversed his earlier public promise to release the names, saying last week that a Justice Department policy prevents him from releasing them.

The region’s senior federal law enforcement official took that stand Wednesday after one of his staff prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney George J.C. Jacobs, said in court that the buyers’ use of such bogus degrees in the health care, engineering and other professions “puts the public at risk.”

“I was hoping at some time we could release the list of names of these buyers,” McDevitt said in an interview.

“I’d love to release the list, but I’ve been convinced it would be contrary to (Department of Justice) policy,” he said.

That decision is expected to draw criticism from higher education and academic accreditation agencies, as well as open-government groups.

“I can’t imagine why they would not make this information public,” a woman who works at a Spokane-area college said Thursday in an e-mail requesting buyers’ names from The Spokesman-Review.

“Who are they trying to protect?” she asked. “People bilking institutions out of thousands of dollars with their phony degrees? I work at (a local college) and I have reason to suspect someone who works here has one. Her salary doubled when she got her master’s degree.”

Criticism also came from former FBI agent Allen Ezell, who spent most of his career investigating the sale of counterfeit and bogus college credentials. He is now a vice president in charge of corporate fraud for Wachovia Corp.

By not releasing the names, the federal government is providing no deterrent to future purchasers and is aiding the perpetuation of fraud by the buyers, including those who bought counterfeit diplomas from real universities, the former FBI agent said.

“I think it’s totally wrong to not make these public,” Ezell said when reached on vacation in South Carolina. “The whole purpose of a diploma mill is to sell false academic credentials to people who, we jolly-well know, are going to use them.”

By concealing their identities, he said the federal government “is becoming an accessory to fraud and is allowing these people to continue perpetrating a crime.”

“These (degrees) will be used for the next 10, 20, 30 years by people getting additional salaries – the schoolteachers, the firefighters, whatever – for education they don’t have” and increasing their eventual retirement salaries, Ezell said.

“It’s just one total fraud,” he said of the seller-buyer relationship in a diploma mill. “Somebody has got to stop it on both ends. If the government doesn’t, then who the hell will?”

Ezell said the Spokane case gives the federal government “the perfect chance to publicize these names because that’s part of the deterrent effect.”

“The next time somebody might say, ‘Geez, you know, I don’t think I’m going to buy a piece of that diploma paper. I remember reading where those names of people appeared in the paper.’ That’s the deterrent effect.”

McDevitt said the task force investigation did forward the buyers list to the federal Office of Personnel Management – the federal employee clearinghouse – in the hope that the agency will forward identities of federal employees to the appropriate agencies. The federal agency has refused federal Freedom of Information Act requests for the information.

Court hearings in the Spokane case disclosed that at least one of the purchasers worked in the White House and dozens others were Department of Defense employees. One Army enlisted man became an officer and went off to lead soldiers in Iraq with one of the Spokane degrees, according to court testimony and documents.

McDevitt’s office did file as public record a detailed analysis of “Operation Gold Shield,” the four-year investigation that led to the indictment and conviction of Dixie Ellen Randock, of Colbert, and seven others.

The analysis shows 7,298 degrees were sold throughout the United States and 9,165 more to purchasers in 130 countries around the world. Some purchasers bought multiple degrees from the Spokane-based operation, which also sold counterfeit diplomas from real universities.

Names of the buyers, assembled as part of a task force investigation headed by the Secret Service and IRS, were left out of the court document. McDevitt didn’t want to speculate if the Justice Department’s policy preventing him from releasing the names could have been circumvented if the list had been filed as court record.

The Spokane diploma mill sold to 32 individuals living in what the U.S. State Department labels “terrorist nation states,” including Iran and Syria, and more than 100 others in a half dozen other countries in the Middle East and Latin America that harbor terrorist groups. Their names are on the same buyers list that’s being kept from the public.

McDevitt said he couldn’t discuss what was done with the names of purchasers in terrorist nation states.

Asked about that, Ezell said he’s relatively confident those buyers’ names were forwarded to every appropriate federal agency – the FBI, CIA, DEA, NSA and Homeland Security.

“I would assume that our government, in today’s environment, post 9/11, that they’re checking out everything that they have,” the retired FBI agent said.

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