Senator calls on HSD to investigate official's doctorate

A senate committee chairwoman today turned up the heat on the Homeland Security Department's investigation of a senior government career official's claim of a Ph.D. from a Wyoming university that, according to its literature, requires no attendance and scant course work. Hamilton University, the source of the official's doctorate, grants bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees based on life and work experience.

"I am very concerned by allegations that a senior Department of Homeland Security official may have misrepresented her academic credentials," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees Homeland Security. "I have written today to DHS in order to determine whether this official did in fact breach the government's trust and, if so, what actions the department plans to take."

Collins has taken an active interest in the spread of so-called diploma mill schools, asking the General Accounting Office to investigate them last year.

Collins also said today, "It takes a great deal of effort and ability to earn a graduate degree, which, understandably, is valued highly by employers, including the federal government. If an employee has used a phony degree from a diploma mill to gain a job, promotion or a raise, it would be a serious matter indeed."

Post Newsweek Tech Media reporters confirmed today that, in addition to the doctorate, Laura Callahan, senior director in the office of CIO Steve Cooper at HSD, said on her official resume that she obtained bachelor's and master's degrees from Hamilton University.

According to the resume, she earned her bachelor's degree in computer science in 1993, her master's in computer science in 1995, and a Ph.D. in computer information systems in 2000.

In March 2000, when Callahan was subpoenaed to appear before the House Government Reform Committee on breakdowns in the White House e-mail system, she testified under oath that she was "a graduate of Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J." She did not mention the two Hamilton degrees.

The alumni office at the New Jersey college confirmed that Callahan obtained a two-year associate's degree in 1992; her major was liberal arts/general.

R.G. Marn, a self-described faculty adviser at Hamilton, said in an e-mail that the institution's privacy policies prevented it from releasing records. He has declined to comment on whether Hamilton is a degree mill.

Callahan's official resume does not mention the associate's degree from Thomas Edison.

Hamilton, located in Evanston, Wyo., has been identified by the state of Oregon as unaccredited by any organization recognized by the Education Department. Oregon renders degrees from such schools illegal in the state.

Jeff Brunton, a staff attorney in Hawaii's Office of Consumer Protection, said that Marn used to run two companies in the state, American State University and the Higher Education Research Institute.

Brunton said that the state sued Marn and his companies in 1997 for violating laws that required they disclose in promotional materials and advertising that they were unaccredited. Marn settled, paid a $39,000 fine, and ultimately moved to Wyoming, Brunton said.

Diploma mills do real harm, said George Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "The wrongdoing is that they are providing fairly good tools that stand up to a cursory background check, where [purchasers] can get good jobs where they are assumed to have knowledge that they in fact do not have and can harm other people."

Repeated calls to Callahan at work and at home have been unreturned. Other officials at the department, including Cooper and the chief of staff for Janet Hale, the undersecretary of management, also have declined to respond to repeated queries.

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