Agencies alerted to fake degrees

The Office of Personnel Management has told agencies to beware of bogus academic degrees granted to federal employees on the basis of phony training courses paid for by the government.

OPM Director Kay Coles James sent a memo to the agencies this week advising them of what officials call a "loophole" in the rules for training and academic credentials.

For the most part, OPM officials say existing rules and procedures are effective in dealing with false academic credentials claimed by federal employees and job applicants.

However, they are considering new rules or other action to deal with what they describe as fraud arising from employees who get agencies to pay for fake training courses from diploma mills. Those workers cite the courses as credits for bogus degrees, said Steve Benowitz, associate OPM director for human resources.

In essence, the government is buying the phony degrees for the employee. "The government is being asked to pay for something it didn't get," Benowitz said.

The issue of questionable degrees, a longstanding problem for federal and private employers, arose again recently when a senior information technology official for the Homeland Security Department claimed a doctoral degree from an unaccredited university in Wyoming.

OPM officials refused to discuss Laura Callahan's case, but they acknowledged that no other cases of bogus degrees have "hit the headlines" recently. House and Senate leaders have expressed concern about the case, and the General Accounting Office has begun an investigation.

Most training courses are provided by reputable companies, Benowitz said. But because they are not conventional educational institutions, the accreditation system does not apply to such training companies.

Most cases of questionable degrees involve institutions that offer distance-learning courses and give credit for life experiences, rather than coursework, Benowitz said.

"The issue from the government's perspective is: When we send somebody to training, are they getting legitimate training with a solid course of study, and are we getting what we pay for?" Benowitz said.

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