Phony degrees catch up to buyers

Dec 13, 2008 04:30 AM

Dale Brazao
Staff Reporter

Marie Theriault-Sabourin is a manager in the registrar's office at Algonquin College in Ottawa. She has a master's degree in business administration.

Quami Frederick used her bachelor's degree to get into Toronto's Osgoode Hall law school and was offered a job articling with a Bay St. law firm.

Armed with his Ph.D in political science, police tactical trainer Augustus Michalik counts various Canadian and U.S. law enforcement agencies as his clients.

The problem is, their university degrees are fake.

They are among at least 220 Canadians with bogus academic credentials uncovered in a recent probe. Worldwide, fake degrees are a billion dollar industry, even threatening government security, investigators say.

Last week, an undercover Star investigation exposed Peng Sun, a York University grad who forges university degrees from real Canadian universities for $4,000. Sun's client list was not available, but the Star obtained a list of Canadians who bought fake degrees from an American diploma mill busted three years ago by the U.S. Secret Service and Homeland Security.

St. Regis University, which granted degrees under various names, was a complete fake. Canadians on its "buyers list" gave the Star one of three explanations: some admitted the degrees were bogus, some claimed they submitted course work (but did not provide proof to the Star), and others thought they were awarded real degrees for life experiences.

"I don't want my name in (the story)," said Theriault-Sabourin, who is the manager of scheduling in the registrar's office at Algonquin, a 16,000-student college in Ottawa. She said she now understands the master's degree she purchased in 2000 for $1,350 is bogus.

Her husband, Leo, bought two, a bachelor's degree in business and an MBA in marketing. The couple have a turbulent financial past and it's unclear what role the fake degrees played. Leo was found guilty in an Ottawa court of tax evasion and fraud last May for evading almost $5 million in income taxes he prepared for dozens of clients, mainly chiropractors.

Marie declared bankruptcy earlier this year with more than $680,000 in debts and Leo declared bankruptcy in 2002, owing $483,000 (Leo was discharged from bankruptcy, and Marie's more recent bankruptcy is facing a court hearing).

"I never used it, and never will use it," Marie said of her degree, which she obtained just before she began her duties at Algonquin. Her husband, who is awaiting sentencing, could not be reached for comment.

Responsibilities of the registrar's office at Algonquin include authenticating degrees from other educational facilities. A college spokesman would not comment.

The couple's degrees came from a Washington State diploma mill. Eight ringleaders pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud charges. They set up 120 fake schools with names like St. Regis University and James Monroe University. There were no courses or classes.

The head provost of St. Regis University was a high school dropout.

The gang raked in more than $7 million in sales to 131 countries. It sold everything from high school diplomas to PhDs and medical degrees. Dozens of U.S. government employees are on the list, including a White House staff member, National Security Agency employees, a senior State Department official, and a Department of Justice employee.

Tens of thousands of people are walking around with "ticking time bombs in their resumes," says Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who has spent a big chunk of his career investigating diploma mills.

This week Quami Frederick's blew up on her.

A third-year Osgoode Hall Law School student, Frederick, 28, is on the list as having paid $1,109 for a "B.A." in Business Administration, plus a transcript of marks. Using the degree transcript, Frederick got into Osgoode as one of 290 students selected from 2,500 applicants in 2006.

Contacted by the Star several weeks ago, Frederick initially denied everything, suggesting she might be the victim of identity fraud.

"I'm not worried because I never bought any degree from any university," said Frederick, who expected to graduate next year and has a job lined up with Wildeboer and Dellelce, LLP. The law firm noted her degree on its website, welcoming her aboard as an articling student.

This week, after much soul searching, Frederick changed her story.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have lied to you," Frederick said. "I should've levelled with you. I figured you'd call the university and theywouldn't tell you anything and that would be the end of it."

The change of heart came after the Star found she never attended St. George's University in Grenada, from where she claimed to have an undergraduate degree. Frederick's case is different from others. St. George's is a real university and it appears the degree mill forged documents from there.

Frederick now says "the truth" is she spent $8,000 for a six-month, "fast-track" online business degree in 2004. School spokesperson Lisa O'Connor said St. George's does not offer this type of online course.

"Her degree is completely bogus," said O'Connor, noting the fake transcript shows Frederick spent four years at the school and made the Dean's honour list with a near perfect 3.93 grade point average. "No one by the name of Quami Frederick has ever been a student at our school."

Frederick told the Star this week that the associate dean of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University has launched an investigation into "a potential breach of academic honesty" and she may be expelled. A York spokesperson said they have a department that verifies applicant's credentials, but would not comment on Frederick's case. The law firm removed her name from its website yesterday and is investigating.

The St. Regis degree mill was shut down in August 2005 after a Secret Service agent, posing as a retired Syrian army weapons specialist, applied for three degrees, saying he needed them urgently to stay in the United States.

The only requirement St. Regis made of this potential terrorist was whether he would be paying with Visa, MasterCard or American Express. Two weeks and $1,277 later, the fictional Mohammed Syed got his degrees in chemistry and environmental engineering, based on his "life experience."

Seeing St. Regis as a threat to national security, a task force comprised of eight federal agencies moved quickly. In six years of operation, St. Regis had spread its tentacles around the globe ensnaring clients across Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia.

Operators used email to spam potential customers with tempting offers that included, "buy one degree at full price, get a second free."

Wayne Victor Cook bought two.

A former provincial and municipal candidate in Ontario, Cook claims his public affairs company Wayne Cook Public Affairs Consulting confers with the president of the United States at the White House. He also claims on his website that he played a key role in getting John Tory elected as leader of the Ontario Conservative Party.

Listing numerous blue chip companies and Ontario universities as employers and clients on his curriculum vitae, Cook also claimed to have an Executive MBA from the very real Heriot-Watts University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He does not.

What he does have is two bogus degrees, an MBA and a Ph.D., purchased from the St. Regis diploma mill in 2004.

Cook, who ran for the Ontario Liberals in Beaches-Woodbine in 1981 and Toronto City Council in 1997, losing both times, paid $1,133 for a Ph.D. and an MBA in Human Resources Management.

Just hours after being contacted by the Star, Cook's online bios underwent radical changes. His Executive MBA from Heriot-Watts is now "expected" in 2010. All references to his MBA and PhD were deleted.

"I don't have an interest, and really don't have any comments for you," Cook replied when asked to explain the vanishing degrees.

A spokesperson for John Tory denied Cook played any role in his election as leader.

Design engineer Terry A. Hrushka is so proud of his three degrees from St. Regis that he's posted them on his website a Bachelor of Science in Natural Physics in 1992, a Master of Applied Science in 1994, and a Doctorate in Process Physics in 1996.

The problem is St. Regis University, which falsely claimed it was accredited by the government of Liberia, didn't issue any degrees, bogus as they were, until 1999. What they did do was graduate any student with a credit card on any date they wanted.

"What you have written to me has devastated my life," Hrushka said in an email to the Star, responding to written questions. Hrushka said he thought his degrees were real. "I have now wasted six years of my life and just over $50,000 U.S."

"I wish I had the records to prove all this," Hrushka wrote, claiming he took correspondence courses from St. Regis. "But unfortunately they were lost over time as I moved around a great deal."

Martial arts expert Augustus Robert Michalik counts the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the U.S. Navy Seals, CIA agents and police officers from across Ontario as students of his Police Tactical Training and Black Arts courses he has taught for years.

Proudly posted on his website are certificates of achievement including one issued to "Dr. Augustus Michalik, PhD", by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research for courses in Global Terrorism.

Author of several books, including The Knife Fighting Anti-terrorist Handbook, Michalik purchased his degree in "Political Science" for $1,340 in 2003, and paid for it with a credit card, according to the information compiled by the U.S Justice Department.

"You've got the wrong guy," Michalik said when reached on his cell phone at his base in London, Ont., saying he had just returned from a consulting job in the Philippines. "That's not me."

His Ph.D. is in " political philosophy dealing with terrorism," Michalik said, but refused to name the university. "If you want, you can talk to my lawyer," Michalik said, then hung up.

Days later, all references to his Ph.D. disappeared from the website of Homeland Security Inc. where Michalik is the CEO. The Star was unable to determine which officers from the RCMP or other forces Michalik has trained.

One degree recipient, Dr. Anthony Alsayed, says he has instructed his lawyer to sue the people behind St. Regis in an attempt to clear his name.

A Lebanese-born Canadian with a medical degree from People's Friendship University in Moscow, Alsayed admits he made a mistake in trying to piggyback a PhD from St. Regis on to his medical degree from Russia.

"I'm a victim in this. It's not as if I'm a plumber who was looking for a PhD in education," Alsayed, said in an interview at his Mississauga home. "I have my MD. I'm a real doctor."

His medical degree is recognized in Canada, Alsayed said, but he is not licensed to practice as a physician. Until recently he ran a company that prepped students to take their medical exams.

Alsayed showed the Star a receipt for $1,659 for his PhD in "Medical and Health Care Education." He also paid $650 to a U.S. degree certification company that checked out St. Regis and told Alsayed his degree was issued by a bona fide university accredited by Liberia. What Alsayed did not know was that the St. Regis scam artists had fooled everyone, creating a website purporting to be that of the Liberian government, which heaped praise on St. Regis as a great university.

To add insult to injury, St. Regis took the marks Alsayed got from his medical courses in Russia, and lowered them in the transcripts they sold to him. When he protested, they sent him an email saying a PhD in "Medical Management" from St. Regis was a very tough degree to earn.

"My wife says I'm nave," Alsayed said of how he fell for the scam. "I thought this was the way they did things in North America."

Teacher Kin-Yau "Kenny" Wong has a real master's in business from the University of Toronto, then went and endangered his career by adding a bogus Ph.D. from Belford University to his academic record.

"I tried to use it at my school, but later on I found out that was wrong," Wong said. "I can frankly say I did not use it for any financial gain," said Wong, who paid $1,540 for the bogus Ph.D. in education.

"I admit I did something wrong," Wong said. "I just tried to satisfy my own ego."

Bogus degrees are a billion-dollar-a-year industry, says former FBI agent Ezell, who has spent most of his career investigating the sale of counterfeit and bogus college credentials and is now vice-president for corporate fraud investigation for Wachovia Bank.

Ezell, who headed the massive FBI investigation in the late 1980s, estimates there are 400 Internet diploma mills spewing out 200,000 bogus diplomas a year. More than 85 per cent are located in the U.S.

The fallout from the St. Regis bust is just now being felt across America.

Fourteen New York firefighters were fined more than $135,000 after they submitted bogus degrees from St. Regis in attempts to gain promotions. Six Chicago-area police officers also purchased bogus degrees. One cop even submitted his "tuition" from St. Regis for reimbursement from the department.

His superior, who signed off on the expense, had also obtained a bogus degree from the same diploma mill.


Dale Brazao can be reached at (416) 869-4433 or