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Federal employees bought degrees

An unidentified member of the White House staff and employees of the National Security Agency are among 6,000 people who bought online college degrees from a Spokane-based "diploma mill" now at the center of a criminal case, a federal judge was told Wednesday.

Others who paid thousands of dollars for the bogus diplomas include a senior U.S. State Department employee stationed in Kuwait and a U.S. Department of Justice employee who works in Spokane, defense attorney Peter Schweda told U.S. District Court Judge Lonnie Suko.

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The phony degrees were used by some government employees to win job promotions or pay increases, Schweda said.

The revelation about the link to public employees came at a status conference where Schweda and other defense attorneys asked the judge to order the U.S. Attorney's Office to pick up the pace of releasing material – so-called discovery – gathered by a state and federal task force.

The primary operators of the diploma mill, Dixie and Stephen Randock, of Colbert, are named in a federal indictment accusing them and a half dozen other defendants of conspiring to commit wire and mail fraud and laundering almost $2 million that the scheme brought in between 2002 and 2005.

Their trial is now scheduled to begin Oct. 1. Three defendants have pleaded guilty and agreed to be prosecution witnesses in exchange for lighter prison sentences.

At the status conference, the defense attorneys for five remaining defendants asked the judge in a separate closed-court proceeding for funds to send defense investigators to Liberia and build a computer network to analyze a mountain of digital evidence associated with 125 Web sites that sold degrees.

Defense investigators want to travel to Liberia because officials of that strife-torn nation are accused of accepting cash bribes in exchange for the Liberian "Board of Education" offering accreditation for the online colleges and universities set up by the Randocks.

The defense wants to investigate reports that the U.S. Department of Education threatened to withhold U.S. aid funds for Liberia unless its government officials cooperated with the diploma mill investigation, Schweda told the court.

He began his remarks by saying the defense team is worried about "spoliation" of several hard drives and one piece of missing evidence taken during a series of searches in 2005 carried out by the task force.

"The United States would object to the defense's characterization of the discovery process," Assistant U.S. Attorney George J.C. Jacobs responded.

Material already provided to defense attorneys by the Justice Department reveals at least 135 U.S. government employees bought college or university degrees from the Randocks' operation, hoping to use them for career advancement or pay raises.

"They include employees of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, the National Security Agency and also an employee within the White House," Schweda told the court.

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