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Diploma mills are churning out hundreds of government workers

Pamela Brogan Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — At least 463 federal employees, including 28 senior-level government officials, have fake degrees from diploma mills, and some of the degrees were purchased with taxpayer dollars, congressional investigators said Tuesday.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that that some federal officials with sham degrees have top security clearances and access to sensitive government data.

“A bogus degree can do tangible and substantial harm,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Collins released the GAO report at a hearing Tuesday.

Her statement was reinforced by testimony from Laurie Gerald, a former employee at a defunct diploma mill, Columbia State University, closed by federal authorities in 1998.

Diploma mill schools are “absolutely” a threat to the public safety, Gerald testified.

Gerald is awaiting sentencing on one charge of mail fraud in connection with her employment at the diploma mill. The mill’s former owner, Ron Pellar, was sentenced in April to eight months in jail for nine counts of mail fraud. Federal prosecutors said Columbia claimed to be a government-approved university in Louisiana.

GAO officials also reported that:

• Of 463 federal officials identified with bogus degrees, 257 are employed at the Department of Defense.

• The Energy Department had the second-largest number of employees with bogus degrees — 35. Next was the U.S. Postal Service, with 29, and the Department of Transportation, with 17. The report did not identify officials by name.

• Government officials who obtained bogus degrees included energy officials with “emergency operations responsibilities” and officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration with security clearances.

• GAO’s inspector general reviewed its own employees and none was found to have fake degrees. “We’re clean,” said GAO spokesman Jeff Nelligan.

• A review of federal payments made to just two of 137 suspected diploma mills between July 2003 through February 2004 found that taxpayers paid $169,470 for fraudulent courses and degrees.

• Five of the diploma mills cited in the report took in at least $111 million in revenue between 1995 through 2000.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Collins.

Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii said that diploma mills threaten “the integrity of our educational system” and that federal payments to them are the “essence of government waste.”

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