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Washington, D.C. -- A senior official at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management yesterday told a Senate panel that degrees from non-accredited schools must never be used to base hiring or promotion decisions on in the federal government, and that the agency is using seminars and other substantive efforts to train federal managers and HR officials on detecting bogus college degrees
"Course work or degrees from (non-accredited) schools is never acceptable for any purposes in the federal government," said Steve Benowitz, Associate Director for Human Resources Products and Services.
While not widespread, the use of bogus degrees by federal job applicants could jeopardize the American public's confidence in the civil service, especially in the sensitive national security arena.
Benowitz expressed OPM Director Kay Coles James' concern over the potential harm that can be done to the federal civil service through the use of bogus degrees issued by diploma mills and used by job applicants and promotion-seeking employees.
"Director James has said that these degrees deceive the public, pose a potential threat to national security, constitute a fraud if federal funds are used to pay for them, and can give the public the impression that federal employees have expertise and credentials when they do not," said Benowitz. "It is vital that members of the federal work force be well-trained and qualified and (do not) misrepresent the experience and education they bring to their positions."
Benowitz testified before Senator Susan M. Collins, Chairman of the senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. Collins supports the efforts of OPM and other agencies with jurisdiction on the matter out of her concern over the "proliferation of schools advertising degrees either for no work whatsoever or for only a nominal token effort."
In June 2003, James wrote to agency heads reminding them that a provision in the Homeland Security Act prohibits agencies from reimbursing employees for course work that is not provided by an accredited school. At the time, OPM also issued interim regulations on this provision of the act.
Regarding efforts to clamp down on the use of bogus degrees in government, Benowitz cited James' authorization to increase resources within OPM's investigations unit which uncovers bogus degrees during background checks on employees and applicants. He also said OPM has conducted four training seminars since August 2003 for approximately 750 hiring officials and program managers on techniques and tools they can use to identify fraudulent academic degrees, grade transcripts and claims of job applicants and employees.
The Senate committee commended OPM for its plans to revise employment and investigation forms that would distinguish for individuals what constitutes education that is "acceptable for qualifying" for federal employment, student loan repayment and tuition reimbursement. The revised forms also would leave space for individuals to list degrees or certificates earned through non-accredited or non-traditional training.
Committee member Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT) said fake degrees should not reward someone "with a job over someone who has earned their degree," and he acknowledged OPM's "stepped-up efforts" to combat diploma mills.
Today's hearing capped two-days of testimony, which also included the General Accounting Office and the administrator of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization. Representative Tom Davis (VA) also testified. Davis is chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform.
The committee also heard from a convicted, former employee of a large diploma mill operation who described the slick advertisements and deceptions the company used to attract clients and issue "creative billings" to facilitate agency reimbursements.
Benowitz also pointed out to the committee a misleading portion in the GAO report on diploma mills which makes it appear that a former senior level OPM employee was found to have a diploma mill degree. Benowitz said no senior level employees have been found to have a bogus degree and that the employee referred to in GAO's report was a mid-level worker who is no longer with the agency.
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