OPM calls for more scrutiny of employees' credentials

The Office of Personnel Management wants agencies to do a better job of screening federal employees to ensure that they are not claiming credentials from unaccredited colleges or universities.

In a memo sent yesterday to agency heads, OPM director Kay Coles James said OPM is notifying agencies when employees claim degrees from so-called "diploma mills," but agencies are not reporting back to OPM whether they have taken any action.

Agencies base personnel decisions on OPM background investigations into employees' suitability for security clearances, but agencies aren't reporting all their actions back to OPM as required, James said.

James linked her action to recent reports, first published by Government Computer News and Washington Technology, that federal employees were putting inflated educational credentials in their resumes. GCN and Washington Technology have found dozens of federal IT and contractor employees with degrees from unaccredited schools.

"You may recently have read about the inclusion on resumes of degrees from schools that are not properly accredited," James said. "Such degrees are from schools, often referred to as 'diploma mills,' that are not accredited by an appropriate authority subject to oversight by the U.S. Department of Education, and generally involve payment of a fee in exchange for a degree, without any significant academic requirements."

James referred agencies to an OPM manual on the topic, Guidance for Agencies Concerning Bogus Degree Claims.

She said OPM would audit the personnel security programs of agencies that do not comply with her request to tighten up their reporting of personnel decisions.

Federal regulations require agencies to report personnel decisions related to security clearances to OPM. But James' memo said that in fiscal 2002, agencies failed to comply for:

  • 80 percent of investigations for nonsensitive, low-risk positions;

  • 52 percent of investigations for secret clearances;

  • 45 percent of field investigations conducted for higher than secret clearances.

  • James directed agency heads to review all investigations on hand and report back within 60 days on any resulting personnel decisions.

    "OPM will institute oversight audits of agency personnel security programs if adjudication decisions are not reported back as requested," she said.

    She added: "When employees or prospective employees list these in documents required for OPM background investigations, we notify agencies of the issue. If this occurs, the agency is responsible for taking any necessary and appropriate steps to address the issue."

    OPM also plans to improve awareness of the issue by holding half-day seminars Aug. 12 and 13.

    Alan Ezell, a former FBI agent who conducted investigations leading to the prosecution of dozens of diploma mill operators in the 1980s, will present part of the seminar.

    Ezell said his presentation would focus on how security and human resources officials can identify diploma mill degrees and distinguish them from credentials granted by legitimate schools.

    OPM announced the seminars today. "We saw the need to further assist agencies in the clearance process, but we wanted to give them detailed instruction on how to spot and verify education achievements during the hiring process, prior to the OPM background investigation," James said in a statement.

    The statement cited OPM's activities over the years in combatting the diploma mill problem.

    "It is my goal to ensure that those hired to work for the federal government are of the highest integrity," James said. "That is why we are focused on trying to help human resources and personnel security professionals become more effective in their screening process."

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