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Laura Callahan is a former senior director at the United States Department of Homeland Security who was forced to resign after an investigation revealed that she and numerous other federal employees had obtained high-ranking government jobs through use of fabricated academic degrees received from diploma mills. Callahan had also served as Deputy Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the US Department of Labor and was previously a senior information technology (IT) manager at the White House. Through her work in the latter position, Callahan had been involved in an earlier scandal when unspecified computer problems caused thousands of email messages to escape the reach of a congressional subpoena, and three contract employees alleged that Callahan had threatened to have them jailed if the problem was ever disclosed.

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“Project X” email scandal and investigation

During an examination of campaign finance irregularities of the 1996 presidential campaign, investigators discovered that thousands of subpoenaed federal email messages were missing due to an unspecified computer error. In March 2000, Callahan was called to testify before Congress regarding her role as White House IT manager during the Clinton administration. Three Northrop Grumman contract workers responsible for operating the system testified that Callahan and another federal employee ordered the problem to be kept so secret that it was referred to only as “Project X”, and had threatened to have them imprisoned if it ever became known.[1] Callahan denied under oath that she ever threatened anyone over the emails. She did not mention her advanced computer science degrees during the introduction to her sworn testimony, a fact which was not remarked upon at the time.

Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security

Callahan left the White House in 1999 as the “Project X” scandal was developing, and was appointed Deputy CIO of the US Department of Labor, where she was responsible for overseeing the Department's $420 million IT budget.[2] She was subsequently elected President of the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM),[3] a professional organization representing federal information technology managers.

According to Department of Labor employees later interviewed by the media, Callahan had become increasingly difficult to work for, reacting in a hostile way when questioned on her unusual decisions, and frequently belittling employees for not understanding the complex technological jargon she said she had acquired while studying for her doctorate.[4] A 2001 report issued by Assistant Inspector General John J. Getek cited "allegations of waste, mismanagement, fraud and abuse" against Callahan's office and faulted her management practices for fostering “low morale” among her staff of 125. Notwithstanding this, Callahan was promoted twice by the agency, and in March 2003, she was named to the position of Deputy CIO of the Department of Homeland Security.[5]

Diploma mill scandals

In her government resume, Callahan claimed to have earned a bachelor's degree in computer science in 1993, a master's degree in computer science in 1995, and a doctorate in computer information systems in 2000, all from Hamilton University. Although its name is similar to Hamilton College, a prestigious liberal arts college located in Clinton, New York, the university in fact offered degrees for a fixed fee with little or no formal coursework required. It was later found to have been operated by three employees of an organization called “The Faith in the Order of Nature Fellowship Church” out of a refurbished Motel 6 in the small town of Evanston, Wyoming, and is currently defunct. Callahan did receive a two-year associate's degree in 1992 from Thomas Edison State College (an accredited school in Trenton, New Jersey), with a major of "liberal arts/general".

The discrepancy was first brought to national attention by Richard Wainwright, a computer specialist who had worked under Callahan at the Department of Labor. Unbeknownst to Callahan, he had once lived close to Evanston, Wyoming, and after minimal research quickly realized her background was not what she had claimed. After Callahan was hired by the Homeland Security Administration in a position where he felt she could jeopardize national security, Wainwright tipped off the Beltway trade journal Government Computer News about her fraudulent degrees.

Revelation of Callahan's questionable qualifications caused a public outcry that stimulated an 11-month congressional investigation into use of fraudulent academic degrees by government workers, the first such major inquiry since the FBI's Operation Dipscam, a 1980s probe targeting the diploma mill industry that shut down 40 schools and led to more than 20 convictions.

A 2004 report [1] released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) detailed a pattern of widespread and ongoing abuse by numerous federal employees, based on information provided by three unaccredited schools that cooperated with the initial probe. The institutions, California Coast University, Kennedy-Western University and Pacific Western University, represented a small fraction of the dozens of suspected diploma mills in existence nationwide.

463 federal employees were discovered to have been enrolled in the three schools at the time of the inquiry. The Department of Defense had the highest number of enrollees, with 257 employees registered. The GAO also found that the government itself had paid at least $170,000 for questionable "coursework" by federal employees at California Coast and Kennedy-Western alone, and believed that even this amount had been significantly understated by the institutions involved.

The GAO report revealed that at least 28 senior-level employees had obtained their degrees from diploma mills, while cautioning that "this number is believed to be an understatement." The implicated officials included three unnamed National Nuclear Security Administration managers with emergency operations responsibility and top "Q level" security clearance allowing access to sensitive nuclear weapons information. In May 2004, NNSA spokesman Brian Wilkes told reporters that "the [managers'] conditions of employment did not rest on the education that they were claiming," and that the revelations would not affect their job status.[6]

Aftermath

Many of the federal officials implicated in the scandal were never publicly named, and their status remains unclear. Charles S. Abell, the principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, was identified by the press as having obtained his master's degree from Columbus University of New Orleans, an unaccredited distance learning school. Daniel P. Matthews, Chief Information Officer for the Department of Transportation (which oversees the Transportation Security Administration) was reported to have received his $3,500 bachelor of science degree from Kent College, a diploma mill in Mandeville, Louisiana. As of 2004, both remained in their positions and continued to hold security clearances.[7]

Callahan was placed on paid administrative leave in June 2003, and continued to draw a six-figure DHS salary until her resignation on March 26, 2004. She was never charged with a crime.

According to officials at Thomas Edison State College, Callahan is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in computer science.[8]

References

  1. ^ Paulson, Amy (2000-03-23). "White House officials acknowledge e-mail glitch secrecy, say no threats were made". CNN. http://archives.cnn.com/2000/ALLPOLITICS/stories/03/23/whitehouse.email. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  
  2. ^ Miller, Jason (2002-09-16). "Their job: Find the best fit for people in IT jobs". Government Computer News. http://www.gcn.com/print/21_28/19948-1.html. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  
  3. ^ Miller, Jason (2003-06-16). "Callahan will not seek a second term as the president of AFFIRM". Government Computer News. http://www.gcn.com/print/22_15/22415-1.html. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  
  4. ^ Sperry, Paul (January 2005). "Cut-Rate diplomas". Reason magazine. http://www.reason.com/news/show/36443.html. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  
  5. ^ Dizard, Wilson (2003-03-14). "Callahan to move to homeland slot". Government Computer News. http://www.gcn.com/online/vol1_no1/21400-1.html. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  
  6. ^ McGlinchey, David (2003-04-11). "Nuclear agency managers among diploma mill users". GovExec.com. http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0504/051104d1.htm. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  
  7. ^ Dizard, Wilson (2004-04-26). "Hill sets plans for confronting diploma mill problem". Government Computer News. http://www.gcn.com/print/23_9/25699-1.html. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  
  8. ^ Dizard, Wilson (2004-04-05). "Laura Callahan resigns from DHS". Government Computer News. http://www.gcn.com/print/23_9/25699-1.html. Retrieved 2006-11-15.  

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