"Operation Gold Seal" Shuts Down Major Diploma Mill

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Eight participants of a massive diploma-mill scheme have been successfully prosecuted. Documents in the case indicate that from August 1999, until August 2005, Dixie Ellen Randock, Steven Karl Randock, Sr., their daughter Heidi Kae Lorhan, Roberta Lynn Markishtum, Kenneth Wade Pearson, Richard John Novak, Blake Alan Carlson, and Amy Leann Hensley operated an Internet-based diploma business that sold false and fraudulent academic products. The government investigation—called "Operation Gold Seal"—concluded that during this period, their business sold 10,815 fake credentials to 9,612 people in 131 countries for a total of $7,369,907 [1]. The products included counterfeit high school diplomas, college and graduate-level degrees (e.g., Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Sciences, Master of Arts, Master of Sciences, and Doctor of Philosophy), fabricated academic transcripts, and “professorships.” The scheme included a Web site purporting to belong to Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Documents further indicate that that by accessing Web sites and paying fees between $399 and $2,454, consumers could be “evaluated” for a degree by Lorhan (a high school dropout, who often identified herself in e-mails as "Advisor James") and Hensley (who would follow a script and identify herself as "Advisor Tim"). Carlson, sometimes identified as "Professor Blackwell," manufactured fraudulent rubber stamps and seals to make the documents look official. Pearson operated the diploma mill Web sites. Markishtum printed some of the fraudulent documents and falsely confirmed via telephone to employers and potential employers that the degrees purchased were valid. Novak worked as a “consultant” and helped prepare the fraudulent documents sold to foreign consumers [2-11].

The fake schools created during the scheme included Saint Regis University, James Monroe University, Robertstown University, Holy Acclaim University, Ameritech University, Fort Young University, Pan America University, All Saints American University, American Capital University, Blackstone University, Capital America University, Hampton Bay University, Hartland University, Intech University, Nation State University, New Manhattan University and Graduate Institute, North United University, Port Rhode University, St. Lourdes University, Saint Renoir University, Stanley State Graduate University, Van Ives University, West American University, International MBA Institute, Apollo Certification Institute, James Monroe High School, Liberty Academy Preparatory High School, Trinity Christian High School, Mission College Preparatory High School, and Bradford Academy College Preparatory High School. However, the conspirators also sold counterfeit diplomas and academic products purporting to be from legitimate academic institutions, such as the University of Maryland, George Washington University, Missouri University, and Texas A&M University.

Eight hundred fifty-nine of the degrees were related to health care:

Field
Number of Degrees

Alternative medicine

36

Dentistry

10

Healthcare administration

157  

Hypnotherapy

15

Laboratory and technical services

22

Nursing

47

Nutrition

14

Occupational health, safety, and medicine

29

Oncology

  1

Pediatrics, ob-gyn, general medicine, respiratory medicine

36

Pharmacy

14

Psychology, counseling, & psychiatry

349  

Public health and education

78

Radiology

  4

Religious healing

16

Sports, fitness, and rehabilitation

16

Substance abuse counseling and treatment

14

Surgery

  1

Total

859  

Novak admitted to paying more than $43,000 in bribes to several Liberian government officials in order to obtain accreditation from Liberia for Saint Regis University, Robertstown University, and James Monroe University, and to induce Liberian officials to issue letters and other documents to third parties falsely representing that Saint Regis University was properly accredited by Liberia. Between October 2002 and September 2004, approximately $19,200 was wired from an account in the State of Washington controlled by Dixie and Steven Randock to a bank account in Maryland in the name of the Liberian Consul.

Government investigators found that the evaluation process was a sham. For example, even though an investigator deliberately gave incorect answers for 75% of the questions on a qualifying examination, the Web site indicated that he had tested to the equivalency of a 3.1 GPA for high school diploma and a 3.2 GPA for an AA college degree that he could purchase.

Another investigator who posed as a retired Syrian military officer seeking an H1B visa was able to buy "degrees" in chemistry and environmental engineering from “James Monroe University.” Credentials of this type, if not detected, could conceivably help terrorists gain entry into the United States.

A few situations have come to light in which people who held respectable jobs were discovered to have bogus degrees. Some may have believed that they were buying legitimate credentials that reflected knowledge and/or skills they acquired through experience. Others knew that the credentials were bogus but hoped that they would enhance their vocational status. The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) has published a complete list of buyers that can be searched by category [12]. The list includes 130 people who are U.S. military personnel and at least 40 who are educators or U.S. government civilian employees. WHNT-TV has investigated how 19 soldiers, defense contractors, and civilians bought fake diplomas in order to get promotions [13].

Each of eight defendants pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. Novak pled guilty to an additional count of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Pearson, who was discovered to have 11,000 child pornography images stored in his computer, pleaded guilty to an additional charge of receipt of child pornography. Steven and Dixie Randock each received a 3-year sentence to be followed by 3 years of court supervision. Steven was also ordered to forfeit his interest in over $500,000 in seized cash and various bank accounts, real property, and a 2001 Jaguar XK8. Lorhan was sentenced to 12 months and one day imprisonment, followed by 2 years of supervision. Markishtum was sentenced to a 4-month term followed by 1 year of supervision. Pearson received a 4-year sentence on the pornography charge and a 6-month concurrent sentence on the conspiracy charge. Novak, Carlson, and Hensley, who cooperated with government investigators, were merely placed on 3 of years probation. Novak and Carlson were ordered to perform 300 hours of community service. Hensley was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service.

Government action to break up the ring was assisted by George Gollin, Ph.D. a University of Illinois physics professor who has worked relentlessly against credential fakery for many years. Wired Magazine has published a glowing account of his work [14]. Gollin's Web site contains a wealth of additional information, and he is writing a book about the problem.

References

  1. Analysis of the Operation Gold Seal “buyers list.”
  2. Indictment. United States of America vs. Dixie Ellen Randock et al. U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Washington, Case No. CR-05-0180, filed Oct 5, 2005.
  3. Affidavit of Secret Service Senior Special Agent John E. Neirinckx, II. Aug 10, 2005.
  4. Plea agreement of Dixie Ellen Randock, March 26, 2008.
  5. Plea agreement of Steven Karl Randock, Sr., March 26, 2008.
  6. Plea agreement of Heidi Kae Lorhan, March 26, 2008.
  7. Plea agreement of Roberta Lynn Markishtum, April 9, 2008.
  8. Plea agreement of Kenneth Wade Pearson, Oct 10, 2006.
  9. Plea agreement of Richard John Novak, March 20, 2006.
  10. Plea agreement of Blake Alan Carlson, March 7, 2006.
  11. Plea agreement of Amy Leann Hensley, April 30, 2007.
  12. Wolman D. Fraud U: Toppling a bogus-diploma empire. Wired, Dec 21, 2009.
  13. Breach of trust: Army responds to soldiers buying fake diplomas.WHNT, Hunstville, Alabama, May 12, 2009.
  14. Diploma mill degree recipients. Spokesman-Review Web site, accessed Jan 30, 2010.

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