Lawmakers probe use of trumped-up credentials

'I am very concerned by allegations that a senior Homeland Security Department official may have misrepresented her academic credentials.'

'Sen. Susan Collins

J. Adam Fenster

On paid administrative leave, Laura Callahan could lose her top-secret security clearance.

Olivier Douliery

Lawmakers have directed the Office of Personnel Management to investigate whether there is a widespread problem of federal employees holding academic credentials from unaccredited colleges and universities.

The request follows the Homeland Security Department's decision to place IT official Laura Callahan on paid administrative leave following reports, first published online by GCN and Washington Technology, that her doctorate was granted by a Wyoming diploma mill.

On leave

Callahan is the senior director in Homeland Security's CIO office and reports directly to CIO Steve Cooper. She began paid leave June 5 while the Secret Service determines whether she can retain her security clearance, which is necessary for her to keep her job.

A posse of House and Senate leaders have directed OPM and Homeland Security to review not only Callahan's credentials but those of others in DHS and to review whether federal policies exist to curb resume padding.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), chairwoman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Reorganization, have asked OPM to spell out what provisions are in place to guard against federal employees embellishing their resumes with questionable degrees.

'The ease with which these fake credentials can be obtained, and the evident lengths to which the deceit can go'even to the point of manufacturing counterfeit transcripts'is very troubling,' they noted in a June 4 letter to OPM director Kay Coles James.

The two officials gave James a June 20 deadline to answer four questions:
  • Does OPM have any guidance to help agencies make sure they can detect phony degrees before hiring an employee?

  • Has OPM issued any governmentwide policy requiring agencies to screen their employees' qualifications 'to ensure the credentials they claim are in fact from reputable institutions'?

  • Does OPM or any agency keep records of how many misleading resumes have been discovered?

  • Does OPM or any agency 'keep an ongoing list of suspect institutions that can be used to inform employers and employees of what institutions are unacceptable under OPM policies'?

  • The lawmakers also asked James to recommend policies OPM could use to avoid hiring or promoting individuals with embellished credentials.

    Checking up'a little

    OPM's own hiring policy says it must conduct limited background investigations of potential employees who will hold 'positions of moderate public trust or noncritical sensitive positions.'
    [IMGCAP(2)]
    Each investigation consists of a personal interview; a check of educational claims for the past three years, with the highest degree verified; and checks of residence and references for the past year, court records and employment for the past three years, and credit records for the past seven years. The policy is detailed on OPM's Web site, at www.opm.gov.

    In its fiscal 2004 budget proposal, OPM's Investigations Service is slated to take over background checks for the Defense Department under the E-Clearance initiative, one of the 25 Quicksilver e-government projects.

    Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Democratic Homeland Security Caucus, wrote to Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge on June 4, citing the controversy and requested an investigation and a report to Congress.

    'In the interim, I trust that you will give your highest attention to the verification of employee biographies and an emphasis on having candidates who have received their educational training from accredited institutions of higher learning,' she said.

    Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who last year looked into the proliferation of diploma mills, also weighed in.

    In a separate letter to Ridge, Collins said, 'I am very concerned by allegations that a senior Homeland Security Department official may have misrepresented her academic credentials.'

    Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, continued, '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 diploma mill schools, having asked the General Accounting Office to investigate them last year.

    The review exposed the extent of the problem, and Collins seemed little surprised that federal employees might also be embellishing their resumes.

    'I think in the case of security clearances, the investigations for presidential nominees are much more in-depth and would reveal' false credentials, she said. 'The problem is those investigations that are done for people in lower-level but still-sensitive positions.'

    Callahan came to Homeland Security in April from the Labor Department, where she had been deputy CIO.

    Her official resume lists three degrees from Hamilton University'a 1993 bachelor's in computer science, a 1995 master's in computer science and a 2000 doctorate in computer information systems. Hamilton University has been identified as a diploma mill by the state of Oregon and is not accredited by any organization recognized by the Education Department.

    For the record

    DHS officials have been mostly quiet about the ongoing brouhaha and review of Callahan's credentials by the Secret Service'except for a statement issued by Science and Technology Directorate spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich.

    'This is our standard practice and does not reflect that we have made any decision on this matter or serve as any indication of what our decision may be,' she said.

    Department officials are still collecting facts, and it would be difficult to put a time frame on when the investigation will end, Petrovich said.

    'We want to be sensitive to this person, as well as to the allegations that have been lodged,' she said.

    A senior DHS official said Secret Service investigators were checking whether Callahan's ability to hold a security clearance had been compromised. She has a top-secret clearance.

    Richard D. Callahan, Laura Callahan's husband, is a Secret Service agent, the public affairs office for the agency confirmed. He works in the Washington area.

    Solemnly swear

    In March 2000, when the House Government Reform Committee subpoenaed Callahan to testify on breakdowns in the White House e-mail system, she said under oath only that she was 'a graduate of Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J.' She did not mention the 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.

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

    R.G. Marn, who said he is faculty adviser at Hamilton, responded in an e-mail that the institution's privacy policies prevent it from releasing records. He declined to comment on whether Hamilton is a diploma mill.

    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.

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

    Diploma mills do real harm, said George Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign who has researched diploma mills, particularly online scams.

    'The wrongdoing is that they are providing fairly good tools that stand up to a cursory background check, where [diploma purchasers] can get good jobs where they are assumed to have knowledge that they in fact do not have and can harm other people,' he said.

    Callahan did not respond to repeated calls to both her office and home. Other officials at the department, including Cooper and undersecretary of management Janet Hale, also did not return repeated calls.

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