OPM: Double-check education claims

OPM's Kathy Dillaman, at an underground records storage site in Boyers, Pa., says legislation is not needed to prevent the use of questionable academic credentials. 'The standards are clear.'

Jeff Swensen

The Office of Personnel Management this month put the onus on agencies to make sure the employees they hire and approve for security clearances give the government legitimate details about their educational and employment histories.

If agencies don't, OPM will intervene and audit the programs agencies use to grant employment and approve security clearances, OPM director Kay Coles James said in a memorandum to agency heads.

One of OPM's jobs is to conduct initial reviews of potential employees' credentials and, on request by agencies, the backgrounds of current federal employees.

In her memo, James paid particular note to educational information, especially if OPM finds it deceptive or identifies degrees as coming from unaccredited institutions or diploma mills.

'When employees or prospective employees list these in documents required for OPM background investigations, we notify agencies of the issue,' she said. 'If this occurs, the agency is responsible for taking any necessary and appropriate steps to address the issue.'

James linked her action to recent reports, first published by Government Computer News and Washington Technology, of the use of inflated educational credentials on federal employees' resumes.

'You may recently have read about the inclusion on resumes of degrees from schools that are not properly accredited,' James said.

A chief concern of OPM is that agencies do not submit required reports to the personnel agency on the actions they take.

OPM will audit the personnel security programs of agencies that do not comply with the request to tighten up reporting, she said.

In fiscal 2002, James said, agencies failed to report on:
  • 80 percent of investigations for nonsensitive, low-risk positions

  • 52 percent of investigations for secret clearances

  • 45 percent of field investigations conducted for clearances higher than secret.

James directed agency heads to review all investigations on hand and report back within 60 days on any resulting personnel decisions.

'OPM will institute oversight audits of agency personnel security programs if adjudication decisions are not reported back as requested,' she said.

A senior OPM official, who requested anonymity, said the oversight audits could lead the office to take action affecting an agency's overall security programs or specific personnel decisions. The agencies that submit background check requests to OPM decide whether to grant individuals employment or security clearances. 'But this is a decision that OPM oversees,' the official said.
'If OPM disagrees with their decision, we can exercise our oversight authority.'

The official said there have been cases where OPM identified problems with an applicant's credentials'such as inflated or false educational information.

Spotting bogus degrees

Although OPM does not have a list of unaccredited schools or diploma mills, the agency provides materials on how to detect inflated educational credentials, such as the handbook Guidance for Agencies Concerning Bogus Degree Claims. OPM also plans to raise awareness of the issue by holding half-day seminars Aug. 12 and 13.

Kathy Dillaman, deputy associate director of OPM's Center for Investigations Services, said her agency received about 2 million requests for information about individuals last year.

'Many of those are regulatory, where all we do is a background check,' Dillaman said. 'As for true background investigations required by executive order, we do several hundred thousand a year.'

OPM conducts about 40 percent of the background checks that the government does annually, Dillaman said. The Defense Security Service and other agencies conduct the rest.

OPM stows its records of background investigations in a mainframe database, Dillaman said. Information about individuals' educational credentials resides on microfilm with the full reports of investigations, she said.

Dillaman's center is located at the government's underground records facility in Boyers, Pa. The facility'hundreds of feet below ground in a converted limestone mine tunnel'is home to millions of personnel and other records, stored on both paper and other media.

OPM's background-checking operation requires a staff of about 3,000 across the country. But 90 percent of the staff members are contract employees.

OPM officials declined to comment on any individual cases'including those that have involved the use of academic credentials from unaccredited schools.

An investigation by Government Computer News and sister publication Washington Technology turned up more than 60 government and contractor IT workers claiming degrees from unaccredited schools.

Dillaman said she doesn't know why applicants for jobs and security clearances misrepresent their qualifications, but added: 'They are pushing the system to see how far they can take it. They hope it will go undetected.'

And although the use of such credentials has drawn the attention of House and Senate lawmakers, Dillaman said she does not believe additional legislation or regulations are needed.

'The standards are clear,' she said.

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