OPM tells agencies to make sure training is legit

The Office of Personnel Management earlier this week asked agency officials to be vigilant in making sure employees are not taking advantage of a loophole in the law that lets workers receive payment from agencies for bogus degrees from unaccredited educational organizations.

In a memo to department executives, OPM director Kay Coles James advised human resource officials to ensure that 'any such training is clearly job-related, and that the provider actually delivers the quality and quantity of training purchased.'

James also reviewed the academic degree policy for employees, stressing the Education Department's role in accrediting colleges and universities.

In addition to the memo, OPM officials said they are reviewing the loophole'which lets federal workers receive tuition payments for degrees from unaccredited organizations one class at a time'to decide whether further action is needed. Steve Benowitz, OPM's associate director for human resources products and services, said changes to the existing regulations or a recommendation for new legislation are possible options.

'If employees are getting the government to pay for bogus degrees by billing for one class at a time, that is fraud,' he said. 'We are having discussions with agency officials about this, and we will be interested to see what the General Accounting Office report finds.'

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, asked GAO to investigate the use of diploma mill degrees to obtain positions and promotions in the government. She also asked OPM to review the authority that lets federal employees receive compensation from their agencies for coursework completed at diploma mills. James said OPM has been reviewing this authority since June.

Benowitz said many agencies send employees to single courses that are legitimate, but OPM is concerned about the possibility of fraud occurring. James said preliminary research has found this loophole has not been exploited, but she wanted to ensure that agency officials applied the proper oversight to prevent it.

The memo preceded two half-day training sessions OPM conducted Tuesday and Wednesday for human resource managers and agency personnel security staff to review laws and regulations regarding diploma mills.

OPM said 435 agency employees attended the two seminars, which outlined the steps employees must take if they identify someone with a fake degree. Guest speakers at the seminars were Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent in charge of diploma mill investigations, and John Bear, who wrote a reference guide to detect diploma mills and unaccredited institutions.

This was the first time since 1998 OPM conducted a diploma mill seminar, said Kathy Dillaman, OPM's deputy associate director for the Center for Investigations Services. She added the agency has kept in contact with security personnel about this topic.

OPM's seminars and GAO's inquiry were triggered by reports that Laura Callahan, once deputy CIO of the Homeland Security Department, had acquired three degrees, including a doctorate, from an unaccredited organization in Wyoming that required little or no course work. Callahan was placed on administrative leave in early June while DHS officials investigated the reports.

PostNewsweek Tech Media staff members Patience Wait and Wilson P. Dizard III contributed to this story.

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