In this case, the doctor is no longer in

Phony diploma mill in Wash. state features Maryland names on database

August 06, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun Reporter

He graduated from the Naval Academy and made a mark in the community as an architect and engineer, serving as president of several development companies. He served on county committees, hosted a political fundraiser for state Sen. John A. Cade and became the longest-serving trustee at Anne Arundel Community College.

But for more than 30 years, it gnawed at Robert J. DiAiso that he had largely completed his doctoral studies but didn't have a degree to show for it. The Anne Arundel County resident said he contacted an Internet-based company about three years ago to see if he could put the finishing touches on it.

"It was one bit of unfinished business," he said.

DiAiso now appears on a database that lists more than 9,000 people who contacted an organization busted by the federal government in 2005 that authorities say sold thousands of counterfeit degrees and transcripts from legitimate colleges and bogus degrees and transcripts from nonexistent universities and schools.

Not all of those whose names appear in the database purchased fake degrees; officials said some may have only made an inquiry. But those who followed through were able to receive fraudulent diplomas from phony schools with names such as St. Regis University and James Monroe University, as well as legitimate academic institutions such as the University of Maryland.

The list names at least 115 Maryland residents, as well as hundreds of individuals with ties to the military, government and education, including National Security Agency and CIA employees with top-secret government clearances. Only one buyer - a former deputy U.S. marshal - has been charged criminally in connection with the case, according to The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., which published the database last week.

It is not illegal to purchase a phony degree, though 10 states have laws making it illegal to fraudulently use one. The ringleader of the diploma mill, Dixie Ellen Randock, 58, was sentenced last month to three years in prison for conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and seven others have been or will be sentenced in connection with the operation.

Authorities contended that the bogus degrees could be used to circumvent U.S. immigration laws and to help the degree-holders win promotions and pay raises in government jobs. Degrees were sold to customers in 131 countries, officials said, posing potential terrorism threats.

"The overall majority of people buy these diplomas to use in the everyday working world," said Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who investigated diploma mills in the 1980s and wrote a book on the topic. "There's a lot of potential harm here, from a homeland security standpoint, of someone getting a chemical engineering degree or just someone doing damage in a company because they're a dodo."

And then there are people like DiAiso, who at age 68 wouldn't seem to need a doctorate on his resume.

DiAiso graduated from the Naval Academy in 1962 - the class yearbook said he "kept his name on the Superintendent's list at almost every quarter." He obtained two master's degrees, in engineering from New York University and in urban planning from the University of Pittsburgh, before embarking on a career as an architect and engineer.

By 1983, he was a principal at a surveying and engineering firm and would go on to become president of several development companies.

In the community, he served as president of the Crofton Civic Association and was appointed to the board of trustees at Anne Arundel Community College.

In 1998, after serving for 24 years on the board, he was named a trustee emeritus.

The current board chairman said he was surprised to hear that DiAiso's name appeared on the list.

"The fact that he's emeritus speaks to the fact that he was held and is held in an extremely high regard," said Chairman Arthur Ebersberger.

DiAiso said there was nothing deceptive about his contact with the Spokane-based diploma mill. He said he completed all the necessary course work at the University of Pittsburgh to earn a doctorate in urban planning and was close to presenting his dissertation in 1971. But a job opportunity - working on Pentagon City - arose, and he jumped at the chance.

When he came back to Pittsburgh to finish his thesis, he said, his adviser had taken a job at Harvard, and two of the professors on his dissertation committee had retired.

"My faculty members all left, and it was too hard to set up a new committee," DiAiso said.

A spokesman for the University of Pittsburgh said that it is common for doctoral students to be known as "A.B.D." - for "All But Dissertation" - and not follow through. He likened it to law students who don't take the bar exam. The spokesman confirmed that DiAiso received a master's degree and completed his course work up to the dissertation.

Years later, DiAiso said, he approached the university about finishing his dissertation and was told he would have to be back at the campus to earn his degree. He wasn't interested, he said.

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