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Dubious Diplomas Boost Firefighters Pay

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Sixteen Sacramento city firefighters together pocketed $50,000 in extra pay after using bachelor’s degrees purchased from online diploma mills to obtain raises, a Bee investigation has found. Fire officials became suspicious only after a dozen more firefighters applied for the 5 percent education incentive raises using the mills’ diplomas, said Deputy Fire Chief Leo Baustian. Eight of the 28 total were captains.

Yet the firefighters already paid raises between April 2005 and April 2006 were allowed to keep the extra money and no firefighter was disciplined, according to Fire Department documents, city payroll records and other documents obtained under the California Public Records Act.

By contrast, similar conduct in other cities has led to fines, discipline and more. New York City was among the most aggressive, publicly lambasting 14 firefighters following a law enforcement investigation into their behavior and last month collectively fining them $135,000.

Baustian defended the Sacramento Fire Department’s handling of its cases, pointing out that officials rescinded the raises once they learned of the problems and that the clerk who processed the raises retired. Efforts to recover the money were opposed by the firefighters union, he said, and disciplinary action also was ruled out.

“We felt the burden of proof in a discipline case would be on the city to prove there was intent (by firefighters) to deceive and that was going to be a difficult matter,” Baustian said.

However, New York’s Department of Investigation commissioner, Rose Gill Hearn, who oversaw the probe there, said such schemes need to be publicly denounced, and people punished, as a deterrent.

“How is (Sacramento’s) approach fair to other Fire Department members who went out and really did the work, went to the courses so they could get the degree to get to the next level?” Hearn asked.

Retired FBI agent Allen Ezell, a co-author of “Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas,” also criticized the Fire Department’s response to what he called fraud.

“Taxpayers’ money is knowingly allowed to be kept by people who presented phony degrees to get raises?” he asked. “Is this the example the Fire Department wants to set in the community?”

Ezell said diploma mill degrees, which date to 1835 in the United States, have become a growing problem for government agencies because of their easy accessibility — and proliferation — on the Internet. He has testified before House committees in Washington, D.C., about how incentives offered by government agencies cause people to cut corners.

“When you dangle more money in front of people if they get a piece of paper, they’re going to go out and get it and this is what’s going to happen,” Ezell said.

The Bee investigation found that the use of diploma mills to gain raises has spread to at least one other fire department in the Sacramento area, but that agency appears to have taken a tougher stance than the city department.

The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which provides fire protection to unincorporated Sacramento County, confirmed that it is investigating a dozen employees after seven firefighters submitted degrees from two online universities to get 10.5 percent raises.

“People have been disciplined and there’s still more to be punished,” said general counsel Richard Margarita.

Though the fire district declined to release documents about the matter, citing the ongoing investigation, Margarita said the firefighters have been ordered to repay the extra money they earned, plus interest. Other discipline, he said, has ranged from written warnings to reduction of vacation time.

Firefighters not questioned

Alarm bells went off in the Sacramento Fire Department after officials realized that 19 of the 28 firefighters applying for or already receiving the education raises had used bachelor’s degrees from Madison University, which awards degrees “without the normal course work and study required with higher education,” internal city documents show. The remaining degrees came from Almeda and Rochville universities.

Education officials in several states and Ezell, who has investigated the diploma mill phenomenon for more than a decade, have identified all three universities as diploma mills that issue degrees for cash with little or no course work or classroom study or work.

For example, the Rochville Web site promises a buyer a bachelor’s degree “on the basis of what you already know”; Madison’s site offers credit “for prior experience”; and Almeda’s states it grants degrees based on “life experiences.”

Texas education officials include the three on that state’s list of institutions that grant fraudulent or substandard degrees. Texas is one of the few states to aggressively investigate and prosecute diploma mills. There, it is a misdemeanor to use those diplomas to get a job, a state license or a raise. No such law exists in California.

Baustian said his department didn’t question any of the firefighters directly about what they did or why, instead communicating with their union leader, David Charron — a city firefighter and vice president of the Sacramento Area Firefighters, Local 522.

Baustian said Mayor Heather Fargo and the City Council were informed. City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell said that elected officials left the problem to the city manager. “It was an administrative matter,” she said.

The assistant city manager in charge of Fire Department operations, Gustavo Vina, said the city’s approach did not condone fraud or deception.

“There was confusion about the meaning of accreditation; the (union contract) language was not clear,” Vina said. “We took a proactive stance and nobody intimidated us. We stopped the raises, we cleaned up the language, and the problem has been fixed.”

Fargo declined requests to discuss whether she was satisfied with the way the matter was handled.

Applications surged in ’06

How the Sacramento Fire Department managed its diploma mill problems — behind closed doors and with zero publicity — stands in sharp contrast to responses of other agencies in the past year:

Fourteen New York City firefighters were publicly named in a New York City Department of Investigation report n January that described their conduct as “dubious at best and in some cases simply dishonest.” The 27-page report said that the men had submitted bogus degrees from four diploma mills to secure promotions. Two weeks ago, the Fire Department fined the firefighters a total of $135,000. In announcing the fines, Hearn, the commissioner, said the misconduct undercut the diligence, honesty and hard work of firefighters who had legitimately earned degrees.

Two Naples, Fla., police officers were fired in 2006 for submitting Almeda University degrees to get raises of $80 a month. Though the Naples city manager later overturned their firings, the officers were suspended for 10 days without pay and ordered to return the money and take an ethics course. Naples also hired an independent consultant to help it tighten the Police Department’s education credential verification.

Sgt. Jack Burright of the Benton County (Ore.) Sheriff’s Department withdrew as a candidate for sheriff in July 2006 after the Corvallis Gazette-Times raised questions about his education background, including why he had used a degree purchased from diploma mill Farington University to try to get a promotion. Burright was fired by the department for that and other alleged misrepresentations about his credentials but has sued for wrongful termination.

The education benefit has been available since 1987 in the Sacramento Fire Department, but it was not until spring 2005 that the firefighters in question began submitting degrees from diploma mills to get the extra pay, documents show. In spring 2006, applications surged.

On April 15, 2006, the city canceled the 16 raises it had granted and denied raises to 12 other applicants.

Fire and city officials initially took steps to recover the money, proposing a lump sum repayment or a series of payroll deductions, city documents show. That’s when lawyers stepped in from the firm representing the union — Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller, Johnsen and Uhrhammer. Union Vice President Charron filed a grievance in May 2006 to oppose the efforts to cancel the raises and recover the $50,000 paid out in salary increases, documents show.

Neither lawyers at the firm nor Charron responded to telephone messages and letters requesting interviews.

‘Good intentions’ claimed

The highest-ranking firefighter who received a raise for his unaccredited degree was Marc Bentovoja, a captain and acting battalion chief. Payroll records and internal city e-mails show Bentovoja was told last January that he had wrongly received $4,216.87 in education incentive pay for his diploma from Madison University.

Reached by telephone, Bentovoja, of El Dorado Hills, declined to answer questions. Last week, however, he issued a written statement through Fire Department spokesman Jim Doucette.

In it, he said he had heard good things about Madison and “sent them my resume which included my college transcripts, my Associate of Arts Degree, and my life and work experience history. I paid my tuition, which was over $2000.00, and purchased my books. It took me about 7 months to complete the courses, which included tests and written assignments.”

“I obtained this degree only under good intentions,” he added. “At no time was I aware that there were different ‘accreditation organizations.’ ”

Doucette said he did not know what work or classroom study Bentovoja did to get his bachelor’s degree in fire science. Specifying that it was his personal opinion and not the department’s, Doucette added:

“These guys didn’t all try to screw the city over. There’s no doubt some did, but not all.”

Madison was by far the most commonly used diploma mill, the choice of nine others who received raises: Capts. Richard Hudson, Robert Johnson and Rick Vasquez; apparatus operators Stephen Campbell, Sean Dail and Michael Smith; and firefighters Travis Decampos, Sean Filben and Jason Meyer.

Using Rochville University were Capt. Bryon Mefford, firefighter Craig Wexler and apparatus operator Don Morelan. Almeda University was chosen by apparatus operator Robert Arbaugh and firefighters Dawn Ogden and Jeffrey Shilin.

The men did not respond to requests for comment made through Doucette and their union.

However, Shilin — a bodybuilder once featured as a bare-chested Mr. August in a firefighter charity calendar — did respond when Leo Baustian informed him in an April 10, 2006, e-mail that his raise was canceled and an investigation would begin into his “overpayment” of $3,586. He fired back a bitter reply.

“Sure would be nice leo if you, the administration and the city would stop trying to take from firefighters and try giving once in a while, gee what a concept!” Shilin wrote in the e-mail, obtained through the state Public Records Act.

City settled with union

In February, the union grievance was rejected by Edward J. Takach, a city labor relations officer.

“Local 522 provided no documentation to support that these degrees at issue here were obtained through normal course work and study,” Takach wrote. “To allow the incentive to be paid for these degrees would open the door to other degrees which can be obtained just by submitting a check.”

In his grievance, Charron claimed that the degrees had come from universities accredited by the World Association of Universities and Colleges. That met terms of the union’s contract with the city, he maintained, which does not specify which accreditations are acceptable.

Takach responded in his ruling that WAUC is not a proper accreditation agency and is not recognized as one in the higher education world.

“No request has come from the union to expand the standard to online degree programs from diploma mills,” he wrote. “The union interpretation would lead to a nonsensical result.”

Despite Takach’s ruling, the union took its dispute to binding arbitration on Feb. 9. That move, Baustian said, left fire officials worried they could end up worse off if they continued efforts to recover the $50,000.

“We feared if we lost the arbitration, it would open the door to people coming in and using more of these diplomas,” he said.

The city settled the dispute with the union on July 23. The deal was simple: The union withdrew its grievance while the city dropped plans to recover the $50,000 in incentive pay and agreed not to punish those who submitted the degrees.

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