GAO expands diploma-mill probe

Employees with bogus degrees create dilemma for agencies

Transportation CIO Dan Matthews unknowingly obtained a bogus bachelor of science degree from Kent College, an unaccredited school in Mandeville, La. He later earned an MBA from an accredited college.

Henrik G. de Gyor

The General Accounting Office has expanded its investigation examining the use of bogus degrees by federal employees amid concerns that the problem is more widespread than federal officials thought.

GAO initially targeted eight federal departments, including Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Energy, to determine how rare or common it is for federal employees to list a degree from an unaccredited school on their resumes. In mid-January, lawmakers asked GAO also to investigate the Defense Department to give a more comprehensive view of the problem in critical areas of national security.

"This investigation has begun to turn up fairly significant problems," said David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., one of the lawmakers who requested the expanded probe. Increasing the reach of the GAO inquiry was needed to get "a handle on the full scope of the problem," he said.

Research conducted by Washington Technology and Government Computer News last summer turned up more than five dozen federal IT professionals with degrees from unaccredited schools. About half of these employees had worked for the military, whether in active duty, reserve or civilian capacities, at some point in their careers.

GAO is expected to finish its investigation in late February or early March. The House Government Reform Committee, chaired by Davis, and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, may hold hearings on GAO's findings, said committee staffers.

"Weeding out employees with bogus credentials, whether or not they resulted in an actual promotion, will boost morale and rectify a terrible breach of trust," Davis said in a statement.

Determining how to deal with employees that claim degrees from unaccredited schools is not easy, federal officials said. It's not as simple as firing everyone who claims a degree from a school that turns out to be less than advertised.

"On one end of the spectrum, there are accredited schools; on the other, there are clearly bogus [diploma] mills, where students do no work but simply pay for fraudulent degrees," said one congressional source familiar with the issue. "In the middle, there's a whole universe of unaccredited schools that may or may not produce educated, qualified graduates."

For instance, Laura Callahan, once the senior director in the office of the chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department, continues on administrative leave with pay, eight months after Washington Technology and GCN reported she had obtained all three of her degrees from a Wyoming diploma mill. Before the revelation, Callahan had been considered a rising star in government IT circles, holding a seat on the CIO Council and the presidency of the Association for Federal Information Resources Management.

According to William Rudman, a Cambridge, Mass., attorney who specializes in federal personnel law, there are four ways agencies can deal with employees who claim a degree from an unaccredited school.

First, there is a chapter in the employment regulations that provides disciplinary measures, such as suspension or demotion, for falsifying credentials, he said. Second, security clearances may be revoked, which Rudman called a "death sentence" because it is effectively unappealable.

A third measure is for the Office of Personnel Management to get involved. "OPM retains jurisdiction [over new hires] for one year, except in the case of falsification," Rudman said.

He spoke of a case in which OPM found an employee on the job for several years had falsified her application. The agency ordered her removed from her position.

The fourth measure, which applies only to presidential appointees, is to do nothing.

"Appointees [are] not subject to some of these things, and the agencies have to decide what to do with it," Rudman said. "If [they] want to say, 'This is my boy, and I'm going to stick with him,' they can."

Because an unaccredited school might require some level of study and work, officials said some students might be unaware of the school's status. That appears to be the case with Dan Matthews, CIO of the Transportation Department.

Matthews was named CIO in March 2003. He spent more than 20 years in the private sector, mostly with Lockheed Martin Corp. He earned an MBA from Strayer College, now a university, in 1996. And he served in the Air Force from 1971 to 1975.

Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said Matthews has demonstrated great ability in his position and over his work life.

But Matthews also holds a 1991 bachelor of science degree from Kent College, an unaccredited school in Mandeville, La., that was operated by Thomas Kirk, a con artist who was sent to prison for five years for running an affiliated diploma mill.

According to the plea agreement federal prosecutors negotiated with Kirk, his organizations provided no educational value, but he and his associates spent $36.5 million in fraudulently obtained tuition and fees on an extravagant lifestyle that included "a chauffeur driven stretch Continental limousine, a house valued at more than $1 million, Lexus and Mercedes Benz automobiles and expensive jewelry purchased for others."

Matthews declined to be interviewed for this story. Turmail said Matthews worked on his Kent degree remotely in what today is called distance learning. The school sent Matthews materials claiming it was accredited when he applied. Matthews didn't know the school was unaccredited until he was looking for information to apply for the CIO position at the department, Turmail said.

When he learned of the problems with the bachelor's degree, Matthews contacted Strayer to see if he needed to complete any more coursework. The graduate school told him he had completed the work for the master's degree and it remained valid, Turmail said.

Matthews also informed the White House about the Kent College degree during the hiring process. Officials decided this was not a problem.

"Dan is a presidential appointee, and was just as candid with the White House as he was with the department about his educational background," Turmail said. "Ultimately, both the White House and this department understood that the best candidates are those with a strong track record of proven accomplishments and demonstrated leadership -- something Dan had, and something Dan has delivered for the department since becoming CIO."

For people who find themselves in the position that Matthews has, the test is how they handle it, Turmail said.

"As soon as he found out there were questions, he took the appropriate steps," he said. "He's shown a tremendous amount of candor and courage."

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at Wilson P. Dizard III can be reached at

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