OPM hunts fake sheepskins

Officials at the Office of Personnel Management are running more thorough checks of degrees that potential government employees claim to have. The increased examination follows a scandal involving a high-level federal employee who had a phony degree from a diploma mill.

OPM Director Kay Coles James said the agency is rewriting personnel forms to ensure applicants clearly can identify their diplomas and other academic training. The description will help clarify whether the degree or training came from an accredited school. The goal is to spot phony diploma mills that award degrees for a fee with little or no academic work.

In addition, James ordered OPM's Center for Federal Investigative Services to hire more staff to conduct background checks for all federal government agencies. She also wants the center to hold training sessions in May that will teach federal human resources personnel how to spot fake credentials on a job application.

She also said OPM officials are reviewing the federal government's hiring process and job applications to ensure that no job candidates can enter the federal workforce unless their training and education comes from an accredited educational institution.

Phony diplomas became an issue last year when it was disclosed that Laura Callahan, the former deputy chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department, had three degrees from online diploma mills. She lost her job as a result.

These phony degrees deceive the public and pose a potential threat to national security, James said.

OPM officials already have uncovered a series of phony academic credentials that have been used by employees in critical positions. Among them:

A program manager who claimed to have a doctorate in occupational health and safety helped coordinate his agency's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax incident at the U.S. Capitol.

An immigration inspector claimed to have a master's degree in psychology, which turned out to be a degree from a diploma mill.

A police officer claimed to have a bachelor's degree in criminal justice after he submitted his résumé online to a diploma mill and received his degree one week later based on work experience.

A government computer specialist claimed to have bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and information management, which were received only four months apart from the same diploma mill.

A uniformed commissioned officer bought a degree from a diploma mill to satisfy requirements for an early commission.

"It is vital that the federal workforce is well trained and qualified," James said. "The way to maintain this confidence is by ensuring that the training and education of the federal workforce is done by accredited institutions, ones that have a proven track record of providing quality training and education."

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