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More Diploma Mills, Degree Recipients Netted in 'Dipscam'

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The operator of three bogus "diploma mills" was sentenced before a federal judge in Charlotte, N.C., last week, in the latest development in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ongoing "dipscam" investigation.

Court documents released at the sentencing revealed the names of 292 "students" who had applied and paid for mail-order degrees--100 of them in education--from the fake institutions.

Only 21 of the students who applied for degrees in education did not list foreign addresses, according to the documents. The rest were listed as residents of a variety of countries, primarily Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Federal investigators attributed the shift in the population of mail-order students to the fbi's crackdown on the diploma mills, which has forced them to focus more on overseas markets by advertising in foreign newspapers.

The crackdown began in 1980, when the agency launched investigations into a tangled network of illegal mail-order universities through which individuals were purchasing bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees with little or no study involved.

Advertisements for the "universities," which often consist of a one-man faculty and administration, say they offer "nontraditional" degrees based on life or work experience.

According to Otho Allen Ezell Jr., a special agent for the fbi in Charlotte, the investigation has so far resulted in the indictment of more than a dozen diploma-mill operators who had dispensed thousands of fake degrees.

Last week's sentencing targeted Clarence E. Franklin Jr., who sometimes used the fictitious name of John O. Caraway in his businesses. Mr. Franklin pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud.

The guilty plea by Mr. Franklin--who was indicted by a federal grand jury last April on 12 counts of mail fraud, conspiracy, fraud by wire, and aiding and abetting fraud--is a small part of what Mr. Ezell describes as the still-incomplete bigger picture. (See Education Week, April 6, 1988, and June 5, 1985.)

'From Architecture to Zoology'

Because he cooperated with investigators, Mr. Franklin received a three-year suspended sentence, with five years of probation and a $1,000 fine, according to court documents.

Those documents also include information on the 292 people who sent money to and received degrees from three "universities" linked to Mr. Franklin. These were American National University in Phoenix, Ariz., and Miami, Fla.; North American University in Stuart, Fla.; and American International University, also in Phoenix.

The three organizations issued degrees "in everything from architecture to zoology" for a total of $541,200, Mr. Ezell said. Tuition costs ranged from $1,795 for a bachelor's degree to $2,495 for a combined master's and doctorate.

Mr. Ezell noted that the particular goal of the Miami branch of North American University was to recruit foreign students, who tend to hold American degrees in high regard and are more susceptible to the fraud, according to the agent.

Many Americans sought degrees in a variety of fields, but only 21 of those whose address was listed in the United States, or was not listed at all, sought fake degrees in education, the court documents show. (See list on this page.)

According to the documents, John H. Eikenberry of Safford, Ariz., received a doctorate in education administration from American National University in Phoenix in November 1982. He was employed at that time as a school administrator for the Safford Unified School District, according to the court records.

School officials there say Mr. Eikenberry is currently the superintendent of schools in nearby Wilcox, Ariz., where his father had also been superintendent years ago.

According to the court records, Mr. Eikenberry visited the offices of the diploma mill and expressed interest in becoming an adjunct faculty member in 1982.

But a colleague of Mr. Eikenberry's said last week that "this doesn't sound like the John I know."

"If someone asked me, I'd give John a high character reference," said John E. Sinclair, the current superintendent of schools in Safford.

Mr. Eikenberry did not respond to repeated phone calls last week.

'Ripped Off'

Richard D. Ferriera, now superintendent of the Hickman School District in California, obtained a doctorate in business from North American University in May 1983, according to court records.

In an interview last week, Mr. Ferriera claimed that when he applied to the university, he was not aware that it was a diploma mill, and that he was "ripped off royally, to the tune of about $2,000."

According to court records, the university had only documented receiving $300 in payment from Mr. Ferriera.

The superintendent, who was a high-school principal when he applied for the degree, said he had submitted a "comprehensive" research project on local governmental budgeting systems in California as his thesis in April 1983.

The next month, the fbi began investigating the university. Mr. Ferriera said he was notified and agreed to cooperate in the investigation. The court documents did not show any record of testimony offered by Mr. Ferriera.

The superintendent also said he later went on to complete his doctoral degree at Columbia University in New York City. "I decided to do it right this time," he said.

Columbia University officials would not verify that information late last week, but an administrator in the business doctoral program at the university said, after an informal search through past records, that she "had never heard of him."

Accreditation Also False

Diploma mills often offer transcripts and other "official" records to employers checking credentials who may not realize the claims are false, Mr. Ezell said.

Many diploma mills are advertised as "accredited" institutions, but the accrediting agencies are also bogus, he added.

The three universities tied to Mr. Franklin are listed as accredited by the National Accreditation Association in Riverdale, Md. The organization is not recognized by either the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation or the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which are the only organizations recognized by the U.S. Education Department as legitimate accreditors of teacher-education programs.

Those who apply to diploma mills--especially those in education--often know exactly what they are getting, Mr. Ezell said. Many applicants, for example, requested a "backdated" diploma to validate claims that a degree was received previously, according to the agent.

The court records note that a Katherine McEachern was seeking a master's degree in educational administration in order to earn the higher salary of a teacher with a master's degree.

Robert A. Ruck, according to court documents, received a doctoral degree in philosophy in May 1982 from American National University. At that time, he was director of guidance for Central Islip Public Schools in Long Island, N.Y. His thesis title, the records show, was "A Comprehensive Curriculum Guide for Central Islip High School."

School officials there said last week that Mr. Ruck had since retired and that they did not know where he could be reached.

The documents offer other details on the diploma-mill graduates:

A Charlie J. Nichols, who received a doctorate of art in music education from North American University, described himself as a music teacher in Nicholasville, Ky.

A Ronald K. Costa, who obtained a doctorate in French from North American University, said he was a certified teacher at the time in Massachusetts.

A Sister Francesca Holly received a master's degree in English education from American National University in May 1982. She described herself as director of the Center for Christian Concerns in New Jersey.

New Book on Diploma Mills

In a book due out this month, David W. Stewart and Henry A. Spille, both with the American Council on Education's center for adult learning, argue that lax state accreditation policies abet the ability of diploma mills to lure students.

Mr. Ferriera, for example, said last week that he had become suspicious of North American University's reputation and had called the Arizona Board of Education to check on the school.

Mr. Ferriera said he was told that the university was "chartered."

But Mr. Spille of the ace noted that, in many states, to be chartered simply means the proper paperwork has been filed to set up a university office. Diploma-mill operators would like students to believe that "approval is akin to accreditation," Mr. Spille said, but it is not.

He said the Education Commission of the States produced model legislation in 1973 that calls for the establishment of an "agency of authorization" in each state that would oversee and enforce educational standards. But fewer than half the states have adopted laws similar to the model.

Until states make it more difficult for diploma mills to operate, Mr. Ezell said, his job will not be finished.

Another diploma-mill operator tied to Mr. Franklin's case, Stanley J. Simmons Jr., will be sentenced later this year. Mr. Simmons pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in April. He has also cooperated with investigators on the case.

The fbi plans to notify each state's department of justice, and the federal department, of any public employees currently holding false credentials, Mr. Ezell said.


F.B.I.'s 'Dipscam' Operation Nets

One More Diploma-Mill Operator

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