GAO finishing up degrees audit

'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.'

'Rep. Tom Davis

Henrik G. de Gyor

The General Accounting Office within weeks will reveal what Capitol Hill insiders suggest are damning findings from an investigation into federal employees' use of bogus degrees.

'This investigation has begun to turn up fairly significant problems,' said David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Davis and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, requested the audit.

GAO had planned to release its findings already but widened its probe amid concerns the problem is more prevalent than investigators originally thought. The degrees audit team now expects to complete its investigation by early next month.

Auditors initially reviewed employees at eight agencies, including the Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Energy departments, to determine if federal workers often list degrees from unaccredited schools on their resumes. In mid-January, Collins and Davis asked GAO to review employees at the Defense Department as well to get a broader view of the problem.

Extending the GAO inquiry was needed to get 'a handle on the full scope of the problem,' Marin said.

Research conducted in the summer by Washington Technology and Government Computer News turned up more than five dozen federal IT professionals with degrees from unaccredited schools.

But figuring out how to deal with employees who claim degrees from unaccredited schools won't be easy for agencies. Agencies can't simply fire everyone who claims a degree from a school that turns out to be less than advertised, congressional, GAO and legal officials said.

'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,' one congressional aide said. 'In the middle, there's a whole universe of unaccredited schools that may or may not produce educated, qualified graduates.'

William Rudman, a Cambridge, Mass., lawyer who specializes in federal personnel law, outlined four ways to deal with an employee who claims a questionable degree:
  • Disciplinary action, such as suspension or demotion

  • Revocation of security clearances, which Rudman called a 'death sentence' because it cannot be appealed

  • Involvement of the Office of Personnel Management: 'OPM retains jurisdiction [over new employees] for one year, except in the case of falsification' where the jurisdiction is open-ended, Rudman said.

  • Nothing. This option is relevant for presidential appointees only because they are not subject to many federal employment regulations, Rudman said. 'Agencies basically have to decide what to do,' he 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 study and work, it's possible that students are unaware of a school's unaccredited or questionable status.

That appears to be what happened with Transportation Department CIO Daniel P. Matthews. He was named CIO in March of last year and became vice chairman of the CIO Council in November. Before DOT, Matthews spent more than 20 years in industry, mostly with Lockheed Martin Corp.
He earned a master's degree in business from Strayer College, now a university, in 1996. And he served in the Air Force from 1971 to 1975.

But Matthews also has a 1991 bachelor's of science degree from Kent College, an unaccredited school in Mandeville, La., that was operated by a con artist who spent four years in prison for running other diploma mills.

Transportation spokesman Brian Turmail said Matthews has demonstrated great ability as CIO and over his career.

White House approved

Matthews declined to be interviewed for this story. But Turmail said Matthews worked on his Kent degree remotely. Matthews did not know the school was unaccredited until he was looking for information to complete the application for the CIO position, Turmail said.

When he learned of the problems with the bachelor's degree, Matthews contacted Strayer to see if he needed to complete any additional coursework; the 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 degree during the hiring process. Officials decided it 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.'

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