Accreditor Was 'for the Birds,' State Found
State officials in Missouri--in a recent "sting" operation involving a bogus institution governed by the Three Stooges and featuring the Latin motto "Solum pro avibus est educatio"--took the kind of active role in combatting diploma fraud that the Federal Bureau of Investigation hopes other states will emulate.
The complex U.S. network of diploma mills and degree brokers will never be eliminated, the fbi agent who has spearheaded the agency's "dipscam" investigations said last week, unless other states also take on the responsibility for monitoring the problem locally.
The Missouri attorney general's office has been investigating a ring of diploma mills in the state for more than a year, said Otho Allen Ezell of the fbi
According to Missouri officials, they may be the first to have taken civil action under state consumer-fraud statutes against those involved in the illegal sale of degrees.
Last October, the state sued George P. Reddeck Jr., who had been operating as the administration, faculty, and staff of the University of North America in St. Louis.
The state's court action seeks to permanently bar Mr. Reddeck from operating a business in the state, and to collect damages of up to $1,000 per violation of consumer-fraud laws.
A trial date for the case has not yet been set.
According to court records, Mr. Reddick has already served time on federal charges of mail fraud for operating several other diploma mills throughout the country--including one from a phone booth in prison.
Erich Vieth, assistant attorney general, said state officials chose to file a civil complaint rather than criminal charges because the action would be a more effective deterrent.
Although civil cases tend to take longer to try, Mr. Vieth said, they impose fewer restrictions on the type of evidence that is admissible.
The state has also sued what it has determined to be a bogus accrediting agency, Mr. Vieth said.
According to Robert W. Jacob, assistant commissioner of higher education, diploma mills may sometimes slip through a loophole in Missouri law, which exempts colleges and universities with religious affiliations from certification standards.
Many of the bogus schools, he noted, obtain fake accreditation to convince potential students of their legitimacy.
Last October, Mr. Vieth initiated a "sting" operation to investigate complaints that several diploma mills in the state had been accredited by a questionable agency, known as the International Accrediting Commission for Schools, Colleges, and Theological Seminaries.
The commission, which is operated out of Holden, Mo., is not among the few accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Education Department.
The state investigators set up a fictitious "Eastern Missouri Business College" and requested accreditation from the commission, which is operated by George S. Reuter Jr. and his wife Helen.
In the week that Mr. Reuter planned to visit the "school" to determine its status, Mr. Vieth's staff set up a small office in St. Louis.
"We rented the furniture on Monday," Mr. Vieth said. "The appointment was Wednesday, and the furniture was gone by Friday."
'Three Stooges' as Advisors
The so-called college was created in a way that would have been an obvious fake to any credible accreditation official, Mr. Vieth said.
The official college seal contained latin phrases that translate as: ''Education is for the birds" and "Everything from petty theft to highway robbery."
The school's advisory board included such celebrity names as: Eddie Haskell (the neighbor in "Leave It to Beaver"), Arnold Ziffel (the pig in "Green Acres"), Moe and Jerome Howard, and Lawrence Fine (the Three Stooges), Peelsburi Dobouy (alias Pillsbury Doughboy), Richard Kimbell (from "The Fugitive") and Wonarmd Maan (One-Armed Man).
The college's library consisted of one small bookcase half-filled with books, including the school's marine biology text: "The Little Golden Book of Fishes."
According to court documents, Mr. Reuter visited the college for about six hours, making no effort to examine any records or interview the faculty, which consisted of volunteers with fake degrees.
The state subsequently sued Mr. Reuter and his wife under state consumer-fraud laws.
Mr. Vieth noted that Mr. Reuter's commission had accredited 130 institutions in the state, many claiming religious affiliations.
Kevin E.J. Regan, an attorney representing Mr. Reuter, last week declined to comment on the case, saying only that "Mr. and Mrs. Reuter have a longstanding record of integrity in the accreditation field."