In July 1996, FBI agents raided a nondescript office building beside a church in Mandeville, La., a small town near New Orleans.
The building was home to “LaSalle University” — a dubious educational institution issuing supposedly advanced academic degrees via mail for the bargain price of $2,000 to $3,700.
The FBI was interested because the operator, Thomas Kirk, a self-professed religious leader, failed to pay taxes and also because schools like LaSalle were issuing degrees to government employees seeking to pad their resumes and qualify for pay raises hinged to educational advancement.
The FBI’s July raid made national headlines and LaSalle was held up as the poster child for so-called diploma mills.
That long-ago raid, half a nation away, came home late this spring when questions were raised at a school board meeting about the educational attainment of Columbia Union School District Superintendent John Pendley.
Pendley says he earned his Ph.D. from LaSalle in 1998.
He’s given various accounts of when he actually enrolled at the school. In a legal deposition, he claimed he’d gone to LaSalle for three years. On other occasions he said he was there two years and recently, through a spokesman, claims he was there for about 18 months.
Whatever the case, some community members have openly wondered if Pendley is qualified for his job, given that his diploma came from either a diploma mill or, at best, an unaccredited former diploma mill.
The short answer, according to the district and other sources, is yes: The job of superintendent does not require a Ph.D.
Other questions, however, remain unanswered: Did Pendley know or should he have known LaSalle was a diploma mill? Should he repay taxpayers thousands of dollars he received as a result of the degree? Should school leaders like Pendley be held to higher standards?
“I think as a teacher or person of authority, you have to be trustworthy,” said Pat Dean Girard, a former Sonora High School teacher and former member of the Yosemite Community College District Board of Trustees.
She and her husband, Paul Girard, are frequent critics of Pendley’s leadership, attending board meetings and calling for his resignation. They are particularly concerned about a scandal involving Pendley’s son, an aide who had sex with a student in a Columbia El classroom.
“I don’t see these as examples of being trustworthy,” she said. “I feel that he has demonstrated over and over again a lack of proper judgment.”
Pendley has repeatedly declined to speak with The Union Democrat in the weeks since May’s board meeting, despite assurances he would meet with any members of the public to discuss his LaSalle diploma.
The Union Democrat sought answers to the questions by interviewing current and former board members, as well as reviewing public records obtained under California’s Public Records Act.
The LaSalle difference
If you Google “LaSalle University” you’ll see pictures of brick buildings, smiling college students and maybe even a link to a U.S. News and World Report story ranking it as a top 50 U.S. college.
But those stories are referring to La Salle University in Pennsylvania — a completely unrelated Catholic liberal arts college in Philadelphia founded in 1863.
The LaSalle where Pendley got his degree once claimed to be religious in nature, yet it had no campus and was founded by Thomas Kirk in 1989.
To get an idea of what Kirk’s LaSalle was about, consider that the correspondence school had a single “academic advisor” to serve thousands of students and required no academic work of degree recipients. Or that five employees graded student dissertations, not by reading them, but by weighing them on a scale.
That’s according to Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who created the agency’s diploma mill task force, “DipScam,” in 1980 and headed it until 1991.
He said degrees were awarded to anyone shelling out a few thousand dollars.
“It was a smash-and-grab type of place,” said Ezell, whose work was used by FBI agents later in building their case against LaSalle and Kirk.
“LaSalle didn’t have the qualified people to render an opinion as to whether a paper had the quality necessary for a doctoral degree,” Ezell added.
Kirk — who earlier ran a diploma mill in Southern California, Southland University — had long attempted to skirt tax and fraud laws by claiming his schools were religious institutions and conferred religious degrees.
Kirk headed the World Christian Church, parent of the school, which advertised its degrees in the back of magazines like Popular Science.
He thwarted a 1994 lawsuit by the Louisiana Attorney General by claiming a religious exemption to state licensing requirements for institutions of higher education.
The July 1996 FBI raid effectively shut it down. Agents seized several truckloads of documents and $10 million.
Two months later, a grand jury indicted Kirk on 18 counts of fraud by wire, fraud by mail and tax evasion. The government claimed he’d bilked students out of $36 million. Kirk maintained his innocence and took out ads in USA Today alleging “religious and academic persecution.”
He accepted a plea deal that November, and was sentenced to five years in federal prison and surrendered his multimillion-dollar house.
Ezell said the federal government took the $10 million and offered $3,000 to each of LaSalle’s 15,000 pre-raid “graduates” as compensation for being bilked. More than half refused the money. Some continued to use their degrees on resumes.
John Bear, a diploma mill expert, said that fake credentials have allowed people to work in positions for which they’re grossly unqualified.
“There’s just a huge number of professionals on that list,” Bear said. “Educators and therapists and ministers are the three big categories.”
Bear, a Michigan State Ph.D. who has authored books on the subject of diploma mills, said that some LaSalle students were earnest, believing that the school was a valid “distance education” option.
They may have done work, like writing dissertations, to fulfill graduation requirements that didn’t actually exist. But he noted the price should have been a red flag.
“If someone offers you a Rolex watch for 10 bucks, you know it can’t possibly be real,” he said.
“Someone familiar with the world of higher education would know that you can’t get a degree for $3,000.”
In mid-1997, LaSalle University was reorganized as the “LaSalle Education Corporation” — later termed the “Orion Education Corporation.”
In 2000, LaSalle University split into two parts, LaSalle University and Orion College. LaSalle allowed previously enrolled students to continue with their programs, while Orion College operated under a new curriculum introduced in 1998.
Where was Pendley?
Pendley was “never involved in any of that” and enrolled after the school’s reorganization, board President Clark Segerstrom said.
Segerstrom also said that Pendley had no knowledge of LaSalle University’s history as a diploma mill before he enrolled.
However, Pendley in a 2011 deposition involving a school-construction-related lawsuit, said he attended LaSalle for three years — indicating he’d enrolled in 1995.
Following a May 8 board meeting, he told The Union Democrat he’d attended the school for two years, putting him at LaSalle in 1996.
Recently, he said through Segerstrom that he began his studies in mid-1997.
So he either started during the FBI investigation, or shortly after it closed.
He claimed at May’s board meeting that LaSalle was “seeking accreditation” at the time he graduated in December 1998.
If the 1997 timeline is accurate, that means Pendley graduated in a breakneck 18 months.
Most Ph.D.s take at least five to eight years to complete.
Pendley points to a “dissertation” he wrote for the program as proof of his work.
The approximately 120-page report — including an introduction, photos and graphics — examines the effects of a bridge construction project on a Madera County school district.
In his dissertation, he recommends drawing a more accurate map of attendance boundaries and stuccoing the exterior of school buildings.
Pendley’s work seems atypical of most Ph.D.s.
Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mike McCoy, one of three superintendents in Tuolumne County with a doctorate degree, worked for six years, attending more than a dozen classes, taking numerous tests and writing about 400 pages on upper-management development in school districts.
Summerville Union High School District Superintendent John Keiter, who also oversees Twain Harte schools, got his Ed.D. from Alliant International University in San Diego. He said his doctoral studies took him about six years. He wrote a 150-page dissertation on teaching standards.
Tolhurst said that some students of unaccredited schools may produce “really high quality” work, and some otherwise.
“By not having accreditation, it puts all of them in the same basket,” he said.
“How can someone say with confidence that they have the real degree if it’s not from an accredited institution?” he wondered.
“We have these accreditation standards for a reason.”
Bear, a leading authority on distance learning and diploma mills, questioned Pendley’s judgement in seeking the LaSalle degree.
“This is not a degree that any reasonable person would do,” he said.
Why does it matter?
Pendley’s supporters, such as Segerstrom and some school staffers, say the quality of his degree is no big deal in light of his accomplishments.
School superintendents aren’t required to have a Ph.D., just an administrative credential from the state and a master’s degree — one step between a four-year bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D.
Pendley has both a master’s and a credential.
Phil Haydn-Myer, a former Columbia board member who served at the time of the district’s superintendent search in 1998, said the board was looking for someone with experience building and managing school facilities. He said the Ph.D. was merely a “bonus.”
“At that time, it would have never crossed my mind that if someone said they had one, they really didn’t,” he said.
He recalled that fellow Columbia board member Ed Clinite was given the task of researching Pendley’s background, including his LaSalle degree, and raised no serious red flags.
Clinite has declined to comment.
“If I remember right...what he reported back is that (the degree) wasn’t as bright and shiny as it would have been if it was from Stanford or the University of Southern California ... but that after looking into it, essentially it was legitimate,” Haydn-Myer said.
Segerstrom, the school board’s president at the time, said the Ph.D. wasn’t a factor in his being hired among three finalists.
“John was just heads above everybody else without even considering the degree,” he said. “I don’t think anybody else had a doctorate, but that wasn’t important.”
If the degree didn’t factor into him getting the job in February 1999, it certainly got him some extra money.
How much in additional pay Pendley has received for his LaSalle degree is hard to determine.
Public records show he was paid a $1,000 “stipend” in 2000 and another in 2001.
His 2002 contract didn’t mention stipends, but raised his salary by more than $10,000 over the previous year — to $94,753.
Former board member Paul Howay and Haydn-Myer both remember Pendley’s stipend for his doctorate being folded into his salary.
Segerstrom said the stipends simply went away.
“I think there was a point in time where we renegotiated his contract, and those stipends left. We didn’t consider those anymore,” he said.
According to Segerstrom and Pendley, the board was aware of LaSalle University’s “unaccredited” status at the time of Pendley’s hiring. Pendley said he informed the board that LaSalle was “seeking accreditation.”
Segerstrom added that in Pendley’s contract, school accreditation was not specified as a requirement for a stipend. And the fact that LaSalle ultimately “failed to reach accreditation,” as Pendley put it, was unimportant.
“It was something that was a disappointment when it didn’t happen,” Segerstrom said. “(But) the district picked up a lot of energy when he came. We were moving forward with a lot of progress...and it really wasn’t a concern for us.”
Last year, Pendley was the county’s second-highest-paid school superintendent, making $175,760.56 a year for overseeing two one-school districts — Columbia and Belleview.
The board never considered asking for the stipend money back, Segerstrom said, because Pendley does an excellent job.
“He’s a very good superintendent and worth every dime,” he said.
Since the Ph.D. was never a requirement for the job, there technically is no problem with Pendley continuing the position.
But others say there is a larger ethical problem with claiming what some might consider a worthless degree.
Tolhurst described it as an issue of trust.
“It just colors a person’s perception,” he said of Pendley. “If we want integrity...then the degree comes into play. What other things are we not being honest about?”
“I don’t know why it would be such a big deal to have the doctorate title removed... from (Columbia Elementary) letterhead,” Tolhurst said.
Bear’s wife, ethicist Marina Bear, said Pendley’s choice of LaSalle University is worse for someone claiming expertise as an educator.
“He should know how the educational system works at many levels,” she said. “He’s also going to be dealing with teachers. So he should know how people are credentialed and educated.”
A questionable degree may speak volumes about a person’s attitude toward education, according to Teresa Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity.
“What that suggests to me...is a lack of judgment on their part,” Fishman said. “If they wanted to get educated and they turned to a place like LaSalle, the first thing I would say is that I wouldn’t want that person making judgments about children’s education.”
At the May 8 board meeting, Pendley said that his doctorate has been “a benefit to the district” and helped it get through a major campus construction project he oversaw.
It “really helped us as we did our facilities work and planning,” he said.
He declined to answer additional questions about LaSalle University following the board meeting June 26, stating that the media had “already written” about his degree.