OPM ferrets out fake degrees, will revise policies

OPM director Kay Coles James says the personnel agency will audit the hiring practices of agencies that continue to have problems identifying employees with bogus degrees.

Henrik G. de Gyor

As the Senate prepares to open hearings next week on the use of questionable academic credentials in the government, the Office of Personnel Management has found several employees with bogus degrees.

Based on its findings, OPM will take new measures to curb diploma mill abuses, OPM director Kay Coles James said in an April 26 memorandum.

For starters, the agency will hire additional staff at its Center for Federal Investigative Services. The center conducts and adjudicates background checks and advises agencies' human resources officials on the results.

James' memo came as the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was finalizing plans for its May 11 and 12 diploma mill hearings.

A report detailing the General Accounting Office's investigative findings is expected to be the centerpiece of the hearings. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Senate committee's chairwoman, and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, last year asked GAO to look into the problem and whether the government regularly has footed the bill for fake degrees.

Although she did not name the employees, James described some of the cases OPM has turned up where federal employees received degrees from known diploma mills:
  • A computer specialist who claimed both bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and information management'received only four months apart

  • A program manager who claimed to hold a doctorate in occupational health and safety and who helped coordinate responses to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the anthrax contamination at the Capitol

  • A contract specialist who reported a degree received for taking continuing-education classes in the procurement and contracting fields over the years.

  • OPM is reviewing all government personnel forms and will change them to make it clear that applicants and federal employees must distinguish credentials received from accredited schools from those granted by all other organizations, James said. If OPM finds that agencies' efforts to verify credentials fall short, the office will audit the agencies' personnel security programs.

    The personnel agency also plans to hold a third set of seminars this week in Washington for federal human resources officials on diploma mill issues.

    'I am pleased that director James has taken up this challenge and that she appreciates the damage diploma mills can do to confidence in the federal workforce, the value of legitimate education and even public safety when individuals with phony degrees assume positions of great responsibility,' Collins said in a statement. 'Moreover, federal agencies waste public funds when they pay for employees to enroll in bogus degree programs.'

    Davis aide David Marin added praise as well. 'OPM's ongoing review and oversight complements the work GAO and congressional committees are doing, and our goals are the same: safeguarding public trust in the federal government.'

    Marin suggested that national standards for educational credentials would be among the topics discussed at congressional hearings.

    OPM has had procedures in place for years to review the academic credentials of federal job applicants.

    Steve Benowitz, associate director of human resources products and services at OPM, said the agency had uncovered the diploma mill cases recently and is working to resolve them.

    'Some are ongoing, and some are pending a decision by the [employee's] agency,' Benowitz said.

    When the problem arises in a job application, OPM has the authority to bar an applicant from working for the federal government for three years.

    'I think when the final policy documents come out, you will see new forms and new guidance for applicants.' The purpose of the changes is to clarify that required degrees must be from accredited schools, Benowitz said.

    'When somebody pays $3,500 and gets a couple of degrees and gets to pick the date for those degrees, there is a question about that person's judgement,' Benowitz said.

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