Sunday, November 30, 2003

Spokane

Spokane a 'hot spot' for dubious degrees
Experts say schools offer diplomas of questionable worth for a few hundred dollars and little effort

Bill Morlin
Staff writer

Liberty Prep doesn't look much like a high school.

The online school uses an address south of Hillyard -- a pinkish house that recently had an overflowing garbage can and a broken-down speedboat in the front yard.

Its Web site looks almost identical to that of Branford Academy, another Spokane-based operation. Until recently, Branford's address was a building in Mead where mobile homes are sold.

Liberty Prep and Branford Academy offer high school degrees for $286 -- even p
romising to throw in a tassel. They also both sell a two-year community college degree for $661.

The two "high schools" operate on the Internet with links to either St. Regis University and Robertstown University. For a price, those cyberspace operations sell bachelor's, master's or doctorate degrees.

Degrees from such unaccredited operations -- frequently called diploma mills -- are of dubious value, experts say.

Most states, including Washington and Idaho, don't have laws prohibiting diploma mills. And while there are federal wire and mail fraud laws that could be used by the FBI to shut down such operations, they are not a high priority in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Still, graduates of such unaccredited schools are coming under increased scrutiny.

In the past two months, an under-secretary of defense and a ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security both were exposed for having degrees from questionable universities.

At the direction of Congress, the General Accounting Office is investigating the extent of the problem among federal employees. The GAO report is expected to be made public early next year.

But the government probe won't stifle the growing trend, experts say. And it's apparently booming in Spokane.

"Spokane is one of two hot spots in the country right now for this kind of activity," said John Bear, an author from El Cerrito, Calif.

`No Risk!'

Using or selling bogus high school or college degrees is illegal in Oregon and three other states -- North Dakota, New Jersey and Illinois.

With computers and the Internet, online high schools and universities are popping up everywhere, using spam to attract potential grads, said Alan Contreras, who works for Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization.

Some are legitimate, with mailing addresses and accredited course offerings, Bear said. But others sell diplomas that aren't worth much more than the paper they're printed on, said Bear, a court-qualified expert on diploma mills.

The Internet operations use mailing addresses in places such as Liberia, Dominica, Romania or, sometimes, a post office box in Washington, D.C.

"The scope of this is really astonishing," Bear said.

The other "hot spot" in the country, Bear said, is Rochester, N.Y., where the man behind several of the online schools operates.

The two Spokane operations offer applicants a 100-question multiple-choice test, which is translated into a grade-point average.

The tests are linked to either St. Regis or Robertstown universities.

Graduates get an "official diploma, a transcript, a graduation letter, a document portfolio and a graduation tassel," the nearly identical Web sites for the Spokane operations say. The colors for the two schools aren't given.

"Free Evaluation! No Risk! Guaranteed Pass!" say Web sites. "The evaluation is free, so the ONLY way to fail is to quit!"

The operations target people with general equivalency diplomas (GEDs), urging them to buy a degree from Liberty Prep or Branford Academy so they can list that on their next job application.

"Unfortunately, having a GED is often viewed as a stigma," the Liberty Prep Web site says. "Many employers and other individuals do not consider a GED to be as good as a high school diploma."

Changing address

Kenneth Pearson, who lives at 2727 N. Nelson in Spokane, is listed as the "registrant" for Liberty Prep, using that address. The 28-year-old Spokane man did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.

A "registrant" is the person who registered the Web site domain name. Pearson registered libertyprep.org on Aug. 25, public records show.

Dixie Randock, a former Spokane real estage agent, was listed as the registrant of Branford Academy and a related school, James Monroe University, until last week.

James Monroe University appears to be the "conjoined twin" of a similar operation, Breyer State, that uses a post office box in Kamiah, Idaho, according to the state of Oregon's Web site on unaccredited schools.

"Diploma mills are substandard or fraudulent colleges that offer potential students degrees with little or no serious work," the Oregon site says.

After a reporter began asking questions about Randock's ties to Branford Academy, its registration was changed to Mike Dunbar, of Monrovia, Liberia.

Members of Randock's staff, housed in a building at 14525 N. Newport Highway, said she was out of town on vacation and couldn't be reached by telephone.

But by e-mail, the 40-year-old businesswoman agreed to answer a series of questions.

"I do not own or operate Branford Academy," Randock said.

When asked why her name and the address of her family's mobile home business were listed as the official contacts for Branford, Randock said: "I believe that information is pretty old."

She didn't directly answer a question about why Branford's 100-question test was linked to St. Regis University.

"You will have to ask them," Randock said of St. Regis University. "As far as we know they are accredited by their country," she said, apparently referring to Liberia.

Randock said she is a friend of Pearson. She wouldn't say if he is a current or former employee of any of her businesses.

Although the Branford site is now listed to Dunbar in Liberia, the contact phone number is the same as the 1-800 phone number used by "A-Plus Institute," an online real estate school in Mead operated by Randock.

Her husband, Steve Randock, was listed as the registrant for "Advanced Education Institute Trust," linked on the Internet to Robertstown University.

Liberian accreditation

There are no laws in Washington or Idaho against selling, buying and using high school or university degrees from unaccredited institutions. Idaho does have a law making it illegal for unaccredited schools to specifically target Idaho residents.

In Washington, the operations may violate "unfair and deceptive business practices" provisions of the state's Consumer Protection Act, said Assistant Attorney General Steve Larsen. The act can include civil penalties.

"There is a red flag there," said Larsen, assigned to the Consumer Protection office in Seattle.

But many people who purchase bogus degrees know what they're doing, Larsen said, so they haven't been deceived. Instead, employers may see the degrees on job applications and not recognize they're bogus.

George Gollin, a University of Illinois physics professor, has extensively studied diploma mills and generated a Web site, now adopted by the state of Oregon. Randock and her operations are listed there.

Gollin earned his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton. He recently was offered a bachelor's, a master's and second doctorate in "systems engineering" for $4,400 by Parkwood University.

The Parkwood Web site later was closed down by the Federal Trade Commission, which labeled it a diploma mill. The FTC said Parkwood was providing credentials to individuals who could perpetuate fraud.

But as that site was shut down by the FTC, dozens of others popped up.

On one Web site last week, a religious-based operation offered to sell a "doctor of divinity" degree for $750 to candidates "who are called to the pastoral ministry."

The same operation, "Interfaith Degrees," said it would award an "honorary doctorate" to anyone who mailed in $500.

Many of the schools claim to be registered in Liberia, where many of that country's own schools are closed after four years of civil war.

"Attempting to profit from the conditions in Liberia is akin to removing the gold fillings from a helpless person," Gollin said.

Many of the online diploma mills claim they have obtained "accreditation," often from Liberia.

A handful have paid $50,000 to buy "accreditation" from the National Board of Education, which uses a Washington, D.C., post office box and says it is acting on behalf of the Liberian government, Gollin said.

St. Regis University claims to be accredited by the Liberian government. However, the Liberian Embassy recently denied the existence of any such accreditation, Gollin said.

In the United States, bona fide colleges and universities don't buy accreditation. It is done by auditing teams that set universal standards of excellence, allowing students in one state to transfer to schools in other states.

Gollin said he has examined Randock's Web sites, beginning with her "distance education" courses for real estate agents.

In November 2002, Randock was the registrant for branfordacademy.com, Gollin said.

Randock also has been the registrant for three other educational-sounding domains, including James Monroe University, created last January, Gollin said.

Mike Ball, associate director of Washington's Higher Education Coordinating Board, said loopholes in the state's laws allow the diploma mills to operate.

A school must have an actual building in the state to give the HEC Board jurisdiction, Ball said. State laws, written before the rapid advance of the Internet, don't consider if an online school's registrant lives in Washington.

Oregon is different.

Alan Contreras, with Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization, said that state has laws against setting up a bogus school or using a bogus degree as a credential, such as on a job application.

"In Washington, you can buy a degree for $500 in the morning and put it on your resume that same afternoon," Contreras said.

`Doubtful quality'

The FBI hasn't gone after a high-profile diploma-mill case since the 1980s when "DipScam" -- the code name for Diploma Scam -- involved a number of successful prosecutions for wire, mail and tax fraud.

The FBI and postal inspectors have conducted investigations in the past, but now consider diploma mills to be a lower-priority, nonviolent crime.

The Federal Trade Commission has some overlapping jurisdiction and may get involved when diploma mill degrees are fraudulently used to attract business.

"The FBI probably could do more, but with 9/11 and the terrorism threat, the landscape, the priorities have changed," said Allen Ezell, who was the FBI case agent for DipScam.

Ezell is now a vice president for corporate fraud for Wachovia Bank, based in Tampa, Fla. He is co-authoring a book, "Degree Mills," with Bear.

Asked to review the Branford and Liberty Prep sites, Ezell said they appeared to be diploma mills.

"Any entities that are associated with St. Regis and Robertstown is of doubtful quality," Ezell said.

Because of fewer prosecutions, diploma mills are flourishing, Ezell said.

Diploma mills thrive, in part, because of vanity. Some people want to say they have a high school degree, a bachelor's degree or even a Ph.D.

"Is the paper worth having?" Ezell said. "Probably not."

•Bill Morlin can be reached at (509) 459-5444 or by e-mail at billm@spokesman.com.


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