False credentials, real problems

Attorney Jim Fontana said a federal contractor that knows an employee has an uncredentialed degree and is billing for the person's work anyway could be accused of making a false statement to the government.

Olivier Douliery

"We do a complete background investigation on every person before we allow them to start work, and we don't [start the investigation] until we're ready to extend an offer." ? Michael Patrick, executive director of work-force recruitment and planning with Northrop Grumman IT

Northrop Grumman

Employees with bogus degrees could run contractors into federal trouble

During the recent technology boom, when many companies offered employees bonuses for finding new hires, Robert Lang actively recruited for his employer, Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Logicon unit in Stafford, Va. He would spend his evenings at commuter parking lots or Virginia Rail Express stations, handing out his business card and suggesting that people call him if they would prefer not to commute into Washington.

One day in 2000, Lang met a man who seemed to have all the prerequisite experience, including a bachelor's degree from Trinity University. Lang helped the man get interviews with his boss and several other Northrop Grumman managers.

"They made him an offer, and I was well into thinking what I would do with my bonus," Lang said. "Then [human resources] called my boss because they could not verify [the man's] degree."

Lang did some checking and discovered that rather than attending Trinity University in Texas, or Trinity College in Dublin, or any of the six Trinity Colleges in the United States, the applicant had obtained his degree from Trinity College and University -- uncertified by any recognized regional accrediting body, but self-accredited by a group with a different name but the same operators.

"We told Northrop that they needed to revoke any offer, that his credentials did not pass the smell test," Lang said. "Northrop did not hire him."

Not all organizations are as fortunate as Northrop Grumman. An investigation by Washington Technology and Government Computer News turned up more than 60 government and contractor information technology workers claiming degrees from unaccredited schools.

One of those employees, Laura Callahan, senior director in the office of the Homeland Security Department's Chief Information Officer, has been placed on administrative leave while the department investigates her bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from Hamilton University, an unaccredited school in Evanston, Wyo.

The General Accounting Office is investigating whether many federal employees are claiming degrees from so-called diploma mills, and members of both houses of Congress have asked inspectors general at different agencies to look into the matter.

The Office of Personnel Management does not allow federal employees to obtain promotions or reimbursement for education based on degrees from unaccredited schools. Companies that provide services to the federal government also could run into trouble if their employees claim academic degrees that are not as they might appear.

"It's not uncommon for position descriptions to require degrees from accredited institutions, so a degree from an unaccredited one will not meet the requirements," said Jim Fontana, a government contracts attorney with David Brody and Dondershine LLP in Reston, Va. "In the extreme, if it's something that's knowing on the part of the contractor, it could rise to the level of a false statement to the government."

Another problem arises because companies often bill federal agencies for a worker's services at a rate reflecting that worker's expertise and education. A person with a doctorate gets billed at a higher rate than someone with a master's degree. So if the doctorate is not from an accredited school, then the agency could demand a refund, a rate reduction or both, Fontana said.

Checking academic credentials is something contractors "may have paid lip service to in the past," even though it's not an administrative burden to do so, Fontana said. But recent events may encourage them to take their responsibilities more seriously, he said.

"There are occasions where the government does request a certain level of education for [contract employees] who are going to work on a contract," said David Drabkin, deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy with the General Services Administration. "It's getting rare, particularly because our focus is changing to performance-based contracting. ... In some cases, a degree may be an indicator of past performance but, more often than not, we are now focusing on outcomes."

As a result, a government agency that learns a contract employee is not as highly credentialed as claimed can choose to overlook it if the performance is what was promised, Drabkin said.

"But now that we're aware of an issue, we'll be more sensitive to it," he said. "We'll treat each example on the facts, [then] decide what the appropriate action would be. It's very fact-specific."

Michael Patrick, executive director of work-force recruitment and planning with Northrop Grumman IT, said the company goes to great lengths to verify applicants' credentials.

[IMGCAP(2)]"We do a complete background investigation on every person before we allow them to start work, and we don't [start the investigation] until we're ready to extend an offer," Patrick said. The investigation includes verifying education and employment histories, doing a criminal record check and a department of motor vehicles check.

When it comes to education, Northrop Grumman looks for recognized schools, and its recruiters question applicants in depth.

"They will tell us if it's not a normal situation," he said. For instance, "diploma factories don't have a registrar. They don't have a normal way to verify credentials."

Northrop Grumman will withdraw an offer of employment if a job candidate turns out to have been less than completely accurate on his application. And if the company finds out after the person has begun working there, it's grounds for termination, Patrick said.

Sharon Bohlman, a human resources and benefits consultant who also works with the HR Consortium, a coalition of human resources executives with technology companies throughout the Washington area, said consortium members recently discussed the issue of degrees from unaccredited schools.

Members' experiences covered the spectrum, with smaller firms -- less than 1,000 employees -- less likely to have ever seen it. Larger companies, on the other hand, have seen all the ways that candidates doctor their credentials, she said.

The issue of security clearances creates another complication, Bohlman said. Because the need for employees with security clearances is so great, particularly for someone with top secret clearances, an agency and a company might choose to do nothing about an employee with questionable academic credentials.

"I have to believe there's a ton of that going on," Bohlman said.

Staff Writers Patience Wait and Wilson P. Dizard III can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com and wdizard@postnewsweektech.com.

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