Paper chase: Diploma buyers beware

The Justice Department has convicted dozens of diploma mill operators over the past 20 years, according to court documents and a former FBI agent who in the 1980s led a bureau task force on the problem.

Federal personnel rules state that claiming false credentials can be grounds for discharge or disbarment from employment.

If it's found that an employee has a degree from a diploma mill, the employee can lose his job or security clearance, said Winona Varon, the Office of Personnel Management's assistant director for operations.

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'If a job applicant falsifies the forms, they can be disbarred from federal employment for a number of years,' Varon said. 'If they are a federal employee they can be subject to adverse action that could include termination, suspension or reduction in grade.'

Any disciplinary action is the responsibility of the employee's agency, she said. 'Putting false information on a resume or a form is grounds for action.'

As for falsifying security clearance forms, such as standard forms 85, 85P and 86, 'that is a separate ground [for action] that would be determined by OPM and the agency,' Varon said. The security clearance forms require detailed information about a person's employment, residence and educational history for the preceding 10 years.

'If you allege that you have a college degree and you don't have a college degree, that is a falsification,' Varon said.

Justice's most recent diploma mill prosecution began April 17, when a grand jury in the Central District of California indicted Ronald Pellar, also known as Ronald Dante, on nine counts of mail fraud.

The indictment alleges that Pellar, a former stage hypnotist, set up Columbia State University in 1996 at a business office in San Clemente, Calif. The grand jury charged him with defrauding students around the country of more than $10 million.

'The indictment alleges that students around the country were defrauded because CSU gave them the impression that it was a legitimate academic institution, but in reality it was nothing more than a diploma mill,' according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.

Alan Ezell, a 30-year FBI veteran who is now a corporate security manager for Wachovia Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., led the bureau's Dipscam task force, which investigated diploma mills between 1980 and 1991.

Ezell's task force bought 40 degrees, shut down 40 businesses claiming to be schools, executed 16 federal search warrants and won 19 federal grand jury indictments leading to 21 convictions, according to a presentation he gives to university administrators and federal personnel officials.

The task force secured convictions for mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, he said. It ceased operation when Ezell retired. In his current work, he advises organizations on how to spot diploma mill abuses and said he has briefed OPM officials on how to recognize bogus credentials.

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