Nuclear agency managers among diploma mill users

National Nuclear Security Administration officials said Tuesday that the bogus degrees would not affect the managers' job status.

A General Accounting Office investigation has uncovered three National Nuclear Security Administration managers with top-level security clearances who received fraudulent degrees from diploma mills, schools that essentially sell degrees while requiring little or no academic work.

The NNSA, an Energy Department agency, is responsible for handling, maintaining and protecting the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. NNSA officials have reviewed the situations of all three employees and determined "the conditions of employment did not rest on the education that they were claiming," NNSA spokesman Brian Wilkes told Government Executive. As a result, the revelations will not affect their job status.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said Tuesday that revelations of fraudulent degrees cast doubt on the employees' technical qualifications and their integrity.

The NNSA employees work in the Office of Emergency Operations and have Q-level security clearances, an Energy Department standard which allows access to nuclear weapons information.

One of the employees paid $5,000 for a master's degree from a diploma mill in Louisiana known as LaSalle University in 1996. In an interview with the GAO, he referred to his degree as a "joke." The second NNSA employee received a bachelor's degree in 2000 from Chadwick University, an unaccredited institution. The GAO reported that the second employee had not received any legitimate postsecondary academic degrees. The third person received a doctoral degree in engineering administration in 1985 from Columbia Pacific University, an institution that was shut down in 1999 by a California judge for failing to meet academic requirements, awarding undue credit for life experience and failing to employ qualified staff members.

"They were people who had security clearances and who were in sensitive positions," said Robert Cramer, the managing director of GAO's Office of Special Investigations.

The revelations were part of a larger report (GAO-04-771T) unveiled Tuesday at a Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. It found that the federal government has paid at least $170,000 for "coursework" at California Coast University and Kennedy-Western University, two unaccredited schools that are widely believed to be diploma mills. Those two schools, along with Pacific Western University, provided information showing that 463 federal employees are enrolled in their courses. The Defense Department had the highest number, with 257 registered with the schools.

The initial investigation found that federal funding has been used to pay for at least 70 employees to enroll in diploma mills, according to Collins. GAO investigators said Tuesday that diploma-mill representatives tailor their billing to help employees gain reimbursement from the federal government.

GAO officials also asked eight agencies to review the personnel folders of employees with ranks of GS-15 or above, to determine if they had obtained degrees from a diploma mill. That review uncovered 28 employees with degrees from unaccredited schools, including the three NNSA employees and a Senior Executive Service employee at the Transportation Department. All specific personnel cases have been referred to the individual agencies, according to GAO.

The investigation was launched last year after Laura Callahan, a senior director in the office of the Homeland Security Department's chief information officer, was placed on paid administrative leave following allegations that her degrees came from a diploma mill in Wyoming. Callahan has resigned her position at DHS.

Because the GAO investigation involved only three diploma mills and eight federal agencies, the results are simply "a window" on what is probably a much larger problem, according to Cramer.

Collins agreed. "I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg," she said.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, urged federal officials to better define diploma mills for government hiring purposes. He also called on the Education Department to create a list of accredited and legitimate schools. Education Secretary Rod Paige has said his staff will develop such a list.

"This problem can be solved," Davis said. "Congress's job is to provide the oversight and, if necessary, the authority to solve it. Diploma mills will not go away. It is time to make an unequivocal statement that fake degrees have no place or value in the federal workplace."