Eight Washington State Patrol troopers who used diplomas from fake schools to get pay raises will be suspended, but not fired. Friday’s announcement prompted one local legislator to complain that the troopers are getting a slap on the wrist, but another said the agency’s own oversight is at fault.
Sgt. Chris Sweet, who is assigned to the Kelso detachment, is among the eight troopers who will be disciplined.
The State Patrol reversed itself Friday and decided to modify an agency recommendation from August that the troopers be fired.
State Patrol spokesman Jeff DeVere said additional investigation revealed there was no clear intent by the troopers to deceive the agency into higher pay because they did not know the schools were unaccredited. But, he said, the troopers certainly showed poor judgment in submitting the diplomas.
“It was very clear in the decision-makers’ minds that there was no intent (to defraud), but there was poor judgment. That is why the contemplated termination was changed to suspension,” DeVere said Friday.
The troopers have been on paid administrative leave since October of last year and will return to work next week. The troopers have paid the state back the raises they received as a result of submitting bogus degrees, and their pay while on leave did not include those raises, DeVere said.
“These guys have not been working for a year. We have to ensure their training is up-to-date, that they are still qualified to drive and carry weapons,” DeVere said.
He was not certain when the suspensions, which range from three to 10 days without pay, will be served.
Sweet, commander of the Kelso detachment, is a 17-year veteran of the state patrol who was honored in 1998 as Trooper of the Year. In 2006, the Kelso unit was named Detachment of the Year. He received a five-day suspension, DeVere reported. Sweet could not immediately be reached for comment Friday through a message left with the local WSP detachment.
The state patrol investigation began after federal agents shut down a diploma mill in Spokane. In February, the Thurston County prosecutor decided not to file criminal charges.
The prosecutor said that even though the officers admitted to collecting extra pay as a result of their phony degrees, investigators found no intent to defraud the government.
Troopers can boost their pay 2 percent by earning a two-year degree or 4 percent with a four-year degree, and DeVere said the troopers believed they were pursuing legitimate college degrees.
Still, the investigation may raise questions about whether the troopers should have known the degrees were illegitimate.
DeVere said the degrees required no coursework or typical academic effort. Rather, applicants reported life experiences and prior on-the-job training. The schools evaluated the resume and told applicants what degree they qualified for and how much a diploma would cost, DeVere said.
Sweet, DeVere said, obtained a degree from Almeda University, which advertises itself as offering a “life experience degree program.” It’s Web page asserts that “life experience is the greatest teacher.”
Given the ease of the process, DeVere was asked, shouldn’t the troopers have known the diplomas were bogus?
“We certainly did everything we could to determine what the facts were,” he answered. “We spent a tremendous amount of time to do just that. It was determined that the diplomas turned in were not valid. We also spent a lot of time determining whether we had intent (to defraud) on the employees part, or poor judgment.
“Intent could lead to integrity issues, and integrity issues, in our mind, you can’t fix them. Mistakes, or poor judgement — we can rehabilitate for those in most circumstances. These diplomas made it through our agency review process. They (the troopers) were paid. The department has partial responsibility for this. We have since fixed our review process to make sure this does not occur again. “Employees still have responsibilities. They should review this kind of thing. If it is too good to be true, they need to look at it more closely.”
State Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said “I have a hard time believing that, among eight people, no one knew that (the degrees) weren’t kosher.”
Though he didn’t think the troopers should lose their careers over the incident, he said the several days suspension amounts “to a slap on the wrist.”
State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said a key question in the case is whether the WSP does an adequate job determining whether degrees are legitimate.
“Was it the troopers trying to defraud the state, or poor policy procedures on behalf the agency?” Orcutt asked “ If the blame is on the agency, should the officer be suspended at all?”
If their supervisors approved the raises after reviewing the degrees, Orcutt said, “it’s kind of hard to hold them (the troopers) accountable.”
In addition to Sweet, the other troopers who will be suspended are Trooper Dennis Tardiff of Seattle, Trooper Spike Unruh, Trooper Dan Mann of Spokane, and Sgt. Robert Brusseau, Sgt. Jason Linn, Trooper Gabriel Olson and Trooper Brian Ensley, both of Vancouver. In addition to the eight, two other troopers who were accused have resigned.
Nine state troopers accused of faking degrees (Dec. 9, 2008)
State Patrol investigating troopers' diplomas (Oct. 20, 2008)
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