July 31, 2008 in City

State reviewing diploma list

Agencies work to determine whether any employees bought fake degrees
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Washington state agencies are reviewing the list of customers of a Spokane-based diploma mill, trying to determine whether any are state employees who used fraudulent degrees to get a job, a promotion or a raise.

Determining whether anyone has broken the law or agency rules is a long process, several officials cautioned.

The state Department of Personnel said Wednesday it will compare the entire list of 9,612 persons with the list of some 60,000 employees on the state’s payroll.

“If we have a match, we will go back to the agencies,” said Jennifer Huntley, a spokeswoman for the department. Each agency is in charge of its own hiring rules and practices, she added.

The department will use the names from The Spokesman-Review’s Web site, which published the list Monday afternoon. Federal law enforcement agencies compiled the list as part of their investigation into a diploma mill operated by Dixie Ellen Randock and seven others. The eight were indicted and convicted of federal crimes, and recently sentenced.

After the sentencings, the U.S. attorney’s office in Spokane refused to release the list to the public, but did make it available to some state attorneys general and other agencies around the country. The Washington state Department of Health, which licenses a range of health care professionals, requested a copy of the list and received it late last week, said Donn Moyer, a department spokesman.

“We’re trying to figure out the most effective way to cross-reference names,” Moyer said, noting that there are some 300,000 people in Washington who have licenses or certificates in health-related fields.

Some licenses require a certain type of degree, as well as a test, Moyer said. Using a bogus diploma from a phony university, or a counterfeit diploma from a real university, would be a violation of state law, he said.

Randock’s diploma mill operation did both, the federal investigation called Operation Gold Seal discovered. It also sold high school diplomas from real and fictitious schools.

Not all certificates require a specific degree, Moyer said. For example, the state’s registered counselor license only requires a $40 fee and a four-hour course on HIV training. But a person who claimed a phony degree in a brochure or on a Web site could be guilty of false advertising.

“We want people to be able to go to their health care provider and have confidence in them,” Moyer said.

The state Department of Licensing has also been following the diploma mill story with interest, said Brad Benfield. That department issues licenses and certificates to a wide range of professionals, from engineers to cosmetologists. State law requires certain professions to have specific levels of education or degrees to qualify.

“If a degree is required for that profession, and if they’re misrepresenting themselves, they’re breaking the law,” Benfield said. “Misrepresenting your credentials is a violation of that act.”

The Department of Social and Health Services also is reviewing the list published on the newspaper’s Web site earlier this week, spokeswoman Kathy Spears confirmed Wednesday.

When the Human Resources Division finds a name that matches an employee’s name, they will check whether that employee listed the degree on his or her application to get the job, had it added to the personnel file or used it to get a raise or a promotion, Spears said. If a person obtained a degree but didn’t use it for anything connected to his employment, it’s unclear yet what action would be taken, she said.

In some cases, they have found names that matched, but the employees are not the people on the list.

“This is going to take a little while to get through,” she said.

Staff writer Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or by e-mail at jimc@spokesman.com.

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