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Wednesday, January 25, 2006 - Page updated at 01:20 PM

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Diploma mill webmaster indicted on child-porn charges

The Associated Press

SPOKANE — The webmaster of an Internet diploma mill has been indicted on federal child pornography counts.

More than 10,000 sexually explicit images of children were found in four computers used by the Spokane-based diploma operation, federal prosecutors said in announcing indictment against Kenneth Wade Pearson.

Pearson, 30, served as webmaster for the operation, setting up and maintaining various Web sites selling fraudulent college and high school degrees worldwide, investigators said.

The pornography charges stemmed from an investigation of the Internet diploma mill by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

"These child pornography charges are a direct outgrowth of the task force investigation of the diploma mill operation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Lister said Tuesday.

Pearson is scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 9 on federal charges of receiving and possessing child pornography.

He's one of eight people charged by federal prosecutors in October with conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and money laundering in the diploma operation. None of the others face child-pornography charges.

Investigators allege the operation used more than 300 fictional online colleges and universities.

Half the phony degrees sold by "Saint Regis University," "Robertstown University" and "James Monroe University" went to overseas purchasers, many from Saudi Arabia, investigators said.

The buyers could have used their fraudulent college degrees to apply to legally gain entry into the United States, raising potential terrorism and homeland security issues.

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Hard drives from four computers seized from Pearson's home in the diploma investigation stored sexually explicit images of children, some younger than 12 years old, Lister said.

If convicted of receipt of child pornography, Pearson faces a minimum mandatory term of five years in prison. A conviction for possessing child pornography carries a term of as much as 10 years in prison.

Pearson and a local couple, Dixie and Steve Randock, characterized as ringleaders of the diploma scam by federal prosecutors, are among eight defendants scheduled for trial in October in U.S. District Court.

Federal prosecutors allege the operation may have sold as many as 15,000 degrees over six years.

The Randocks also operated the "Official Transcript Verification Center," where their workers would confirm the validity of the degrees to prospective employers who questioned their authenticity in hiring or promoting one of the purchasers.

Customers would pay between $399 and $2,454 to access a Web site and be evaluated for a degree, court documents allege.

A consumer could also access a Web site and take a 125-question test. High school diplomas were awarded to those who answered at least 25 percent of the questions correctly, court documents alleged. Degrees and related documents would then be printed and shipped.

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