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State Employees List Suspect Degrees

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Linda Lichtenberger, who heads the state's codes enforcement training program Linda Lichtenberger, who heads the state's codes enforcement training program
Frank Reed, head softball coach for University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Frank Reed, head softball coach for University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
Leslie Newman, state Commerce Commissioner Leslie Newman, state Commerce Commissioner
Rich Rhoda, Tennessee Higher Education Commission Rich Rhoda, Tennessee Higher Education Commission

When you hire someone for a job, you want someone who's got all the right credentials.

But an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that you've got people working for you whose degrees may not be all that they seem.

NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams found people with questionable credentials on the government's payroll.

"She was a victim, perhaps, of the come-on from this particular company," State Commerce Commissioner Leslie Newman said about Linda Lichtenberger.

Last month, Newman hired Lichtenberger to head the state's codes enforcement training program.

The job description called for "graduation from an accredited college or university with a bachelor's degree" or an equivalent amount of experience.

"She has almost three times the minimum required equivalent experience," Newman said.

Still, Lichtenberger signed her state application saying she had attended Belford University, receiving a bachelor's in business.

What the commissioner didn't know at the time was this: "It is a sham institution," Newman told Williams.

Belford's slick web site offers affordable bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in just seven days. Get credit for what you've learned in life for only $449.

The commissioner defended Lichtenberger. "I think again it was an innocent attempt on her part to roll up all of the hours of course work that she had taken."

Innocent or not, when Lichtenberger (like all Belford graduated) ordered her degree she could also request transcripts, make up your own graduation date and even pick her grade point average. A perfect 4.0 costs an extra $75.

Williams also went online and applied for the degree "vegetable psychology." When asked for his experience, Williams typed that he had "helped a lot of tomatoes grow." Within seconds he was approved for a bachelor's degree!

"How could she not know this was a sham?" Williams asked Newman.

"I can't answer that," Newman admitted.

Rich Rhoda heads the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and he too looked into Belford and constructed his own opinion.

"Do they think this is how it works? There may be one such person out there," Rhoda said. "It is something for nothing. It's fraud."

Then, there's Frank Reed, the head softball coach for University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Williams confronted the coach in his office.

"You just come in unannounced. I'm sitting here working," Reed said to Williams.

"I've tried to reach you over and over, coach - you know that," Williams responded.

"That doesn't really matter," Reed said.

When Reed was hired seven years ago, the job called for at least a bachelor's - "master's preferred," and his application had both degrees from Western States University.

"Are your degrees fake?" Williams asked.

"No," the coach responded.

In fact, Western States is a now-defunct company, offering "life experience" degrees for things like writing reports, volunteer work and even being a volunteer fireman.

"It's not a reputable institution of higher education," Rhoda said about Western States.

"Do you think parents have a right to know how you got your degrees?" Williams asked Reed.

"They know, and the school knows," Reed insisted.

In fact, a UTC spokesman said Reed "presented the credentials that we requested." Despite the coach's work with students, Chuck Cantrell said his suspect degrees really aren't a problem.

"In terms of that position, he met the minimum requirements," Cantrell said.

"And the minimum requirements were for a legitimate bachelor's or master's degree," Williams notes.

"Well, it said, bachelor's degree," Cantrell answered. "There's no adjective there."

Still, UTC isn't alone. NewsChannel 5's investigation discovered professors at several Board of Regents colleges who call themselves doctors have Ph.D. degrees from unknown universities.

"Dr." William Kitchen, an assistant professor at Nashville State, claims a Ph.D. from Cambridge State University. That's an unaccredited operation that was forced out of several states.

"Dr." Clark McKinney, an assistant professor of psychology from Southwest Tennessee Community College, lists a Ph.D. from Brighton University. That's another operation closed by court order.

"Dr." Michael Wright, also from Southwest, lists not one, but two Ph.D. degrees from the Greenwich University. It also was forced to close.

Still, the Tennessee Board of Regents said all three have legitimate masters' - the minimum requirements - so the board doesn't have a problem with their doctorate degrees.

It's a stance that Rhoda has questioned.

"One thing about academic institutions is that academic integrity is at the very core that's the coin of the realm. I mean you have to be who you say you are," Rhoda said.

As to those trying to get ahead, consumer advocates said degrees from places like Belford usually don't open any doors.

As for those NewsChannel 5 discovered, we can't say if any of those people intended to deceive anyone or if they really thought they were getting legitimate degrees. Right now, in every case, their bosses said their jobs were safe.

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