Monday, November 12, 2007

Bill targets 'diploma mills'

Spokane criminal case inspires federal legislation

At a glance

While authorities refuse to release names, purchasers of the phony degrees from the Spokane-based diploma mill included at least 135 U.S. government employees who got career advancements and pay raises. That list, according to court proceedings, includes a member of the White House staff, employees of the National Security Agency and the Justice Department, New York City firefighters, and military officers.

Bill Morlin
Staff writer
November 11, 2007

Federal legislation inching its way through Congress would outlaw "diploma mills" like those at the center of a criminal case being prosecuted in Spokane.

Eight members of Congress are co-sponsoring the proposed "Diploma Integrity Protection Act," introduced earlier this year by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.

The legislation would "reduce and prevent the sale and use of fraudulent degrees in order to protect the integrity of valid higher education degrees that are used for federal purposes."

Even though the impetus for the proposed legislation was the worldwide diploma mill operation uncovered in Spokane, the region's congresswoman has declined to be a co-sponsor.

Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has "reservations about the legislation" currently supported only by House Democrats, according to her chief of staff, Connie Partoyan. "We are very supportive of the spirit and intent of the bill," Partoyan said Friday.

However, McMorris Rodgers thinks the proposal contains some "duplication" of oversight provided by existing laws and government agencies. "We are working to make the bill better," Partoyan said.

The Eastern Washington congresswoman, meanwhile, "is pleased that in Spokane they are taking this issue seriously and prosecuting, at the federal level, those who run diploma mills," Partoyan said.

Possibly as early as this week, the bill or at least significant portions of it is expected to be attached to higher education reauthorization funding that's before the House Education and Labor Committee. As a member of that House committee, McMorris Rodgers will get to vote on the legislation.

She has been urged to support McCollum's legislation by the Rev. Robert Spitzer, president of Gonzaga University.

Spitzer's support comes in part because Gonzaga's sister Jesuit school, Regis University in Denver, was caught in the confusion created by "Saint Regis University," one of 125 bogus online universities and high schools created by the Spokane-based operation.

"The impact on Regis University by this 'Saint Regis' pseudo-university, coming out of this diploma mill here in Spokane, had been significant," said Dale Goodwin, public information officer for Gonzaga.

"Father Spitzer was more than happy to urge Rep. McMorris Rodgers to go ahead and co-sponsor this bill," Goodwin said. The Gonzaga president "supports any tightening of the rules on these diploma mills."

Regis University in Denver also strongly supports the proposed federal legislation, said spokeswoman Kristen Blessman.

Regis president, the Rev. Michael J. Sheeran, S.J., said the university's "name and good reputation were significantly damaged by the efforts of a diploma mill known as Saint Regis University."

"Although government authorities were sympathetic, there was minimal legal protection for (our) university," Sheeran said last week. "It's important that these same authorities be better armed in the future with laws that protect legitimate institutions of higher education, employers and future students from fraud."

McCollum, a co-sponsor, said she was "incensed" by news reports about the phony college degrees being sold around the world by the Spokane-based diploma mill operators.

"I care about quality higher education, and it was shocking to learn about the prevalence of fake degrees and the dangers they pose," she said. "My legislation ensures that we will be able to trust the credentials of our doctors, engineers, government employees and skilled immigrant workers."

McCollum said last week she hopes the language of her bill will be integrated into the Higher Education Act by committee chair Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, the chief federal law enforcement official in Eastern Washington, said Justice Department policy prevents him from commenting on proposed new laws "but we're always looking for new and better law enforcement tools, especially ones that clarify certain areas of the law."

He oversaw the work of a multi-agency state and federal task force that spent nine months investigating the Spokane diploma mill, first publicly detailed in a story published in November 2003 in The Spokesman-Review.

Investigators discovered that many of the people who bought the bogus credentials from bachelor's to doctoral degrees were foreign nationals. They used the degrees to get H-1B visas and improve their chances to immigrate to the United States.

The revelation that potential terrorists could use bogus degrees to enter the United States caused homeland security concerns that reached the highest levels of government.

In October 2005, for the first time in the U.S., a federal grand jury returned a multicount indictment against eight people for the operation of an Internet-based diploma mill that defrauded "consumers worldwide."

Those indicted included former Spokane Realtor Dixie Randock, her husband, Steven Randock, and her associates who operated out of offices in Hillyard, Mead and Post Falls.

The Spokane-based operation raked in an estimated $4.7 million in sales of fraudulent college degrees, court documents say.

Four defendants have pleaded guilty, but Randock and her husband await trial next year on the charges, also including money laundering.