May 16, 2009 in City

U.S. Army eyeing fake diplomas

Spokane-based mill may have played role in promotions
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Database

Search the list of diploma-mill buyers released by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The U.S. Army is investigating soldiers who bought degrees from an illegal diploma mill that was based in Spokane and resulted in prison time for its operators.

It’s also warning soldiers to be wary of phony diploma schemes when they sign up for education and tuition assistance.

The Army’s Human Resources Command is using a list of customers of the diploma mill operated by Dixie and Steve Randock obtained and posted online last summer by The Spokesman-Review.

“We’re doing an inquiry into all of our records,” Lt. Col. Richard McNorton, public affairs officer for the Human Resources Command headquarters in Alexandria, Va., said Friday. “It’s a very laborious process.”

So far, the investigation has turned up about 25 soldiers in the Army, National Guard or Army Reserve who face discipline because they bought fake degrees, and in some cases fake transcripts, and used them to secure promotions, McNorton said. Others have been found who have fake degrees in their files but have since retired.

Retirees might face some administrative action, although the Army’s authority is limited after a person retires, he said.

The investigation was triggered by a series of stories by a Huntsville, Ala., television station about diploma mill customers who worked at a local military base and weapons arsenal. Reporter Wendy Halloran of station WHNT asked the Human Resources Command about some Huntsville soldiers, and the office opened an investigation using the customer database compiled by the U.S. Justice Department in the case against the Randocks, McNorton said.

They also used The Spokesman-Review’s online version of the database, which lists customers alphabetically and by some e-mail addresses, including military e-mail addresses that end in “.mil.” But those were the “low-hanging fruit,” McNorton said, and the Human Resources Command quickly moved on to the full list.

The Army’s investigation turned up one soldier who purchased eight degrees or certificates from the Randocks. Thurman Towry, a former guardsman and Army Reserve officer who submitted degrees to obtain promotions, faced administrative action short of a court-martial and opted to retire, McNorton said.

“Obviously, with something like this, your career is completely over,” he said.

The Army now is concentrating on anyone who obtained a degree from one of several fake institutions, including St. Regis University, which the Randocks created. That fake school prompted a civil suit against the Randocks when Regis University, a Jesuit-run institution in Denver, sued them for damaging the real school’s reputation.

Regis University is accredited by the Army and is listed in a “drop down box” on a form that education officers fill out when a soldier is reporting a degree. Some soldiers who bought St. Regis degrees may have told the education officer that it was the same school as Regis and the form was filled out accordingly, McNorton said.

A college degree is not a requirement for promotion within the enlisted ranks, but it can be the factor that leads to advancements when two soldiers are equal in all other categories. It is a requirement for promotion in the officer ranks.

Each case will be investigated by the soldier’s commanding unit to see what action is warranted. Some soldiers may have purchased a degree without completing any course work and submitted it to gain a promotion, knowing it was fake, McNorton said. Others may have supplied the diploma mill with transcripts from several other schools, along with a work history, and legitimately thought they were earning a degree. “Not everybody is corrupt. Some may have just been dumb,” he said.

The Human Resources Command is also concerned about soldiers, and the taxpayers, being swindled by diploma mills. The military pays soldiers to get more education but requires the education to be from accredited schools – or the costs won’t be reimbursed.

They could lose hundreds of dollars of their own money, McNorton said.

This week, the Army posted a “buyer beware” admonition about diploma mills on the Web site that helps soldiers sign up for education and tuition assistance. It advises soldiers to make sure a school is accredited and warns about punishment for entering a fraudulent degrees into personnel records.

“Don’t get caught with a ‘bogus degree,’ ” advises Thursday’s Tip of the Day from the Army’s education Web site.

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

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