Academia

Cut-Rate Diplomas

How doubts about the government's own "Dr. Laura" exposed a résumé fraud scandal.

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Laura L. Callahan was very proud of her Ph.D. When she received it a few years ago, she promptly rewrote her official biography to highlight the academic accomplishment, referring to it not once or twice but nine times in a single-page summary of her career. And she never let her employees at the Labor Department, where she served as deputy chief information officer, forget it, even demanding that they call her "Doctor."

Callahan's management style had always been heavy-handed. Once, while working in a previous supervisory role at the Clinton White House, she reportedly warned computer workers to keep quiet about an embarrassing server glitch that led to the loss of thousands of archived e-mails covered by federal subpoena. But with her newly minted Ph.D., Callahan became intolerable, several employees say, belittling and even firing subordinates who did not understand the technical jargon she apparently picked up while studying for her doctorate in computer information systems.

One employee was skeptical of Callahan's qualifications, however, and began quietly asking questions. The answers worried him, especially after Callahan was hired in 2003 as the Department of Homeland Security's deputy chief information officer. His concerns and the resulting investigation ultimately revealed a troubling pattern of résumé fraud at federal agencies, including several charged with protecting Americans from terrorism. The scandal raises serious doubts about the government's ability to vet the qualifications of public employees on whom the nation's security depends.

"When she was running around telling people to call her 'Dr. Callahan,' I asked where she got her degree," says Richard Wainwright, a computer specialist who worked for Callahan at Labor for two years. "When I found out, I laughed."

It turns out Callahan got her precious sheepskin from Hamilton University. Not Hamilton College, the highly competitive school in Clinton, New York, but Hamilton University, the unaccredited fee-for-degree "distance learning" center in Evanston, Wyoming, right on the Utah border. Such diploma mills frequently use names similar to those of accredited schools.

Unbeknown to Callahan, Wainwright had once lived near the small town of Evanston (population: 10,903) and knew it well. As a student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he received his bachelor's degree years ago, he had made beer runs to Evanston, less than 60 miles away. He knew there were no universities there, or at least none worth attending. "Evanston doesn't have much but a few motels and liquor stores," he tells me. "I looked up Hamilton University on the Web and saw it was an old Motel 6, and I knew it was bogus."

Indeed, the old motel lobby is clearly visible in a photo of the main entrance to Hamilton posted on the home page of the school's Web site at hamilton-university.edu. Click on "Campus," and you'll find more photos of the converted motel, as well as another small building on the campus, shot from a sharp angle to make it appear large and august.

If the other building looks like a church, that's no illusion. It is a church—sort of. Callahan's alma mater is run by the Faith in the Order of Nature (FION) Fellowship Church, also in Evanston. In fact, the church is headquartered at the same address as Hamilton, which was organized as a "nonprofit theocentric institution of higher learning" in 1976 and claims a religious tax exemption.

Student of Nature

Here's where it really gets weird. FION believes all life forms, including bugs and trees, are created equal and should be treated with equal respect. It feels the same way about education.

"We accept all education as equal in Nature," according to the church's stated doctrine. "We offer recognition and special designations to those who have achieved higher levels of understanding regardless if obtained naturally or formally." Apparently that's how it got into the diploma business. FION's Web site describes Hamilton University as "a Nature-based institution of higher learning, which grants university level degrees that are based in whole or in part of [sic] education obtained through Nature." Since there's little, if any, coursework required, call it education by osmosis.

But this Nature isn't free. Tax-exempt Hamilton, with a staff of three, charges a flat fee of $3,600 for nature lovers in need of a Ph.D., while certifying that all its degrees are accredited "based on the rigid accrediting standards of the American Council of Private Colleges and Universities." And not to worry, Hamilton's Web site assures future graduates: "All transcripts carry the ACPCU seal."

What it doesn't mention is that ACPCU is a fake accrediting agency that the FION church set up to accredit Hamilton. The U.S. Department of Education does not recognize ACPCU as a legitimate accrediting body. (Hamilton officials did not respond to requests for comment. Calls go to a voicemail system.)

To get her Ph.D., Callahan merely had to thumb through a workbook and take an open-book exam. The whole correspondence course—which includes instruction on business ethics—takes about five hours to complete. A 2,000-word paper (shorter than this article) counts as a dissertation.

In short, Callahan's diploma isn't worth the paper it's written on. Though there is that nice leather-bound holder.

It gets worse. Callahan owes her entire academic pedigree to Ham U. The bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science she lists on her résumé were also bought at the diploma mill.

The high-paid senior official was plainly pulling a major scam. And Wainwright was on to her. "I had finally caught Callahan in one of her lies that she would not be able to get out of," he says of his unpopular boss.

Paid Vacation

At the time, Callahan had applied for an important high-level position at the Department of Homeland Security. The job was deputy chief information officer, similar to the post she held at the Labor Department. But this new job required integrating and managing some of the nation's most sensitive databases in a time of war. Callahan clearly wasn't qualified, no matter what her résumé said. Wainwright wondered if she could even be trusted with a top-secret security clearance.

After Callahan landed the post in April 2003, Wainwright anonymously tipped off a Beltway trade journal about her phony degrees and fraudulent résumé. Government Computer News broke the story about Callahan, triggering an 11-month congressional investigation that culminated in government-wide reforms meant to curb the use of diploma mills by federal employees, whose tuition is often financed by taxpayers.

"She was in a position where she could cause damage to the United States," Wainwright says, speaking publicly for the first time about the case. "And that's why I did what I did."

Callahan's fraud was exposed in May 2003. Curiously, she wasn't forced to resign until March 26, 2004, after being placed on administrative leave—with pay—the previous June. That means she continued to draw her Department of Homeland Security salary of between $128,000 and $175,000 for nearly 10 months while under a serious ethical cloud. Misrepresenting qualifications on a résumé, an official bio, or an application—including submitting false academic credentials—is grounds for immediate dismissal, according to federal rules written by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Homeland Security officials maintained they were awaiting the results of an internal investigation, which, oddly, was led at one point by the Secret Service, which does not usually investigate such matters. (Callahan is married to a Secret Service agent, but there is no evidence to suggest he took part in the probe.) "We have no reason at this time not to believe Laura Callahan's credentials," Homeland Security spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich told Government Computer News on May 30, 2003, months after the scandal broke.

Wainwright, who was interviewed by OPM investigators who knew her degrees were phony, wonders why it took Homeland Security 10 months to confirm what OPM already knew—what he found out in a few minutes of online research. Meanwhile, congressional investigators found that red flags about Callahan's academic credentials had already been raised in her personnel file at the Labor Department, according to House Government Reform Committee spokesman Dave Marin. Yet no action was taken there.

In fact, Callahan was twice promoted by the department, even as complaints about her promoting unqualified cronies and rewarding them with big bonuses piled up against her at the office of Labor's inspector general. A confidential 2001 report issued by Assistant Inspector General John J. Getek cited "allegations of waste, mismanagement, fraud and abuse" against Callahan's office. Another Callahan employee—one of the complainants, who claims she retaliated against him in evaluations and raises—gave me a copy of the report, which concluded that Callahan's management practices had led to "low morale" among her 60 federal employees and 65 contractors. Callahan and her lawyer declined repeated requests for comment.

Separation of Degrees

It turns out that Callahan's phony diplomas from Hamilton were backdated. Hamilton boasts on its Web site that it can "custom tailor" degree programs "to meet the needs" of busy professionals. Callahan's advanced degrees were required for her Labor promotions as well as her Homeland Security transfer. Her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees officially were conferred in 1993, 1995, and 2000, respectively.

Yet in March 2000, Callahan made no mention of the 1993 and 1995 diplomas while describing her educational background under oath in testimony before the House Government Reform Committee. They are also missing from her sworn prepared statement submitted to the panel.

Callahan was called to the Hill then to answer charges by four White House computer specialists who swore she threatened them with jail if they talked, even to their spouses, about a computer coding error that conveniently kept hundreds of thousands of e-mails covered by subpoenas from being turned over to federal investigators of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (Callahan denied under oath making such threats.) At the time of the so-called Project X e-mail scandal, Callahan was a supervisor in the White House's computer branch.

"I'm a graduate of Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey," Callahan said in her opening statement. "And I have numerous certificates and a series of awards and recognitions that I've basically been able to achieve over my almost 16 years of federal service." Callahan then began to tick off all her work-related awards, closing the chapter on her education.

"I do have available for you, if you like, a list of those accomplishments, because I think it helps you understand who I am, because those accomplishments number over 40, and they include recognition from not only [military] commands and agencies for which I worked for, but they also include recognition from outside entities," she continued in a soft, demure voice. "What I mean by that, to give you an idea of who I am, the outside awards include the 1995 Supervisor of the Year award—"

"Excuse me, Ms. Callahan," committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) mercifully interrupted. "I don't mean to be impolite, but your entire record of accomplishments is not necessary at this time. We really want to get on with the questions pertinent to the hearing."

At no time in the long hearing did Callahan bring up the Hamilton degrees—just a two-year associate's degree in liberal arts from Thomas Edison State that she got in 1992. That degree is no longer on her bio sheet, replaced by the three Hamilton diplomas. It's not clear whether the OPM or Homeland Security ever tried to obtain the canceled checks Callahan wrote to Hamilton for the degrees to see if the dates on the checks correspond with the dates on the diplomas.

But investigators with the General Accounting Office (GAO) were able to solve the mystery after several lawmakers asked the watchdog agency to probe Callahan and other diploma mill graduates employed by the federal government. In a May 11 report, the GAO said Callahan received her bachelor's and master's degrees in rapid succession between March 2000 and June 2000. Since her Ph.D. arrived in March 2001, that means she got all three degrees within a year.

What the report doesn't say is that Callahan went shopping for her phony bachelor's and master's degrees right after her embarrassing House testimony in March 2000 and as she was bucking for another Labor Department promotion that required such degrees. The degrees were backdated to make it appear as if she got them in 1993 and 1995, which would look more plausible on her résumé. The Ph.D.—also backdated, to 2000—closed out the academic package: a three-for-one deal at Diplomas 'R' Us.

Faithful Correspondent

But at least give Callahan credit for getting her associate's degree; she did some legitimate schooling after high school, right? Actually, even that is debatable. Much like Hamilton, Thomas Edison administers an external degree program for older students that gives course credits for life and work experience, with no required attendance. It has no resident faculty, no classrooms or library. The SAT is not required, and all applicants are accepted. It's a noncompetitive correspondence school.

Which raises the question: Was Callahan even qualified for her White House job, which she got in 1996—just before the problems with the computer system for archiving and retrieving e-mails sent to key Clinton appointees? (To this day, none of the "lost" e-mails relevant to the investigations have been recovered, despite a federal court order demanding them.) Amazingly, Callahan, with just an associate's degree and a few years of computer experience, had direct oversight of the network infrastructure and desktop computing environment used to support the offices of the president and vice president.

Howard "Chip" Sparks, a career White House employee who worked with Callahan (who at the time went by the name Laura Crabtree) did not think she was qualified at all. Sparks, a networking specialist, questioned a technical decision she made in 1997 and practically pulled back a bloody stump. Callahan later warned him in a memo not to question her qualifications again. "Please be advised I will not tolerate any further derogatory comments from you about my knowledge, qualifications and/or professional competence," she snapped in the March 3, 1997, memo.

At Labor, Callahan eventually got more power (despite being pushed out of the Clinton White House over the negative Project X publicity) and became less tolerant of those who didn't agree with her. "She had a style where she was right and you were wrong," Wainwright says, "and if you ever questioned her knowledge, if you were a contractor, you were fired, and if you were a fed [employee], you were banished."

Then she got the Ph.D. and threw it in all their faces, Wainwright and others say. "She insisted we call her Dr. Callahan," he says. "And she would belittle people with her technospeak to make them look stupid. In fact, she said most people [at Labor] were basically stupid." They got the last laugh.

Mill Work Ain't Hard

After Callahan's phony degrees were exposed, Congress asked its investigative arm, the GAO (recently renamed the Government Accountability Office), to audit other federal agencies to find out how widespread the problem of bogus academic credentials is inside the government. Congress also wanted to get a sense of how much, if any, federal money pays for tuitions at diploma mills.

Looking at the personnel of eight federal agencies chosen at random, the GAO found that 463 employees showed up on the enrollment records of just three unaccredited schools. (It actually looked at four colleges, but only three responded to its request for information and only two fully cooperated.) This was merely a sampling of the dozens of mills operating nationwide, not an exhaustive audit; given the limited nature of the GAO's investigation, the true number of federal employees who are academically unqualified to fill the positions they hold could be in the thousands.

Agencies tasked with defending America from terrorism were among the top employers of workers with phony diplomas identified by the GAO. The Department of Defense employs 257 of them. Transportation has 17. Justice has 13; Homeland Security, 12; Treasury, eight.

The GAO also found that two diploma mills alone have received a total of nearly $170,000 in payments from a dozen federal agencies for tuition for 64 employees. Hamilton University refused to cooperate with the GAO in its audit of federal payments for student fees, so it remains unclear whether Callahan's tuition was subsidized.

But as a serial fake-diploma shopper, Callahan is one of the worst offenders among the senior officials identified from the eight federal agencies the GAO surveyed. At least 28 senior-level employees had degrees from diploma mills, the GAO found, while cautioning that "this number is believed to be an understatement." Among them: Daniel P. Matthews, chief information officer for the Department of Transportation (which oversees the Transportation Security Administration), who got his $3,500 bachelor of science degree within eight months from diploma mill Kent College in Mandeville, Louisiana, and three unnamed managers with super-secret Q-level security clearance at the National Nuclear Security Administration—including an Air Force lieutenant colonel who attended no classes and took no tests to get a promotion-enabling master's degree from LaSalle University, a diploma mill affiliated with Kent College and also based in Mandeville. No word yet if they, too, will be forced to resign, or if it will again take the news media to drum them out of office.

The GAO report has prompted the OPM, which conducts background checks on new federal hires, to crack down on the résumé cheats, who short-cut their way to the top and undermine those employees who work long and hard for legitimate degrees and who might get passed over for a raise or promotion. The agency is revising its hiring and background investigation forms to emphasize that degrees must be from accredited schools. It also has authorized more money for background checks so job applicants' academic credentials can be more thoroughly investigated. Down the road, U.S. senators are considering legislation to ban agencies from paying for courses from unaccredited schools. (Congress is not immune to the scam. In fact, an aide to the Senate committee that investigated the Callahan scandal had enrolled in an unaccredited school.)

It remains to be seen whether those reforms will help restore confidence in the federal work force. The American people need to know that the best-qualified workers are running the war on terrorism, not a bunch of hacks and cheats.

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