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Pasco school district, Sheriff's Office investigate phony diploma

Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning grew alarmed the minute he saw the young woman's diploma.

The document showed that Candice Re Phillips had graduated from CHS Inc. High School on July 27, 2013, "by order of the Pasco County District School Board." His own signature, along with that of Cynthia Armstrong, the board's chairwoman at the time, made it official.

Except there's no such thing as CHS Inc. High School in the county. And neither he nor Armstrong had signed the document.

"It wasn't a forged signature," Browning said. "It was a replication of a signature that had been lifted off another document."

One thought came to his mind: fraud.

So the superintendent sent the diploma to Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco. It's now in the hands of the sheriff's economic crimes division.

"Right now what we've done is reach out to Kurt Browning's office to determine how it was discovered and the extent of it," division supervisor Sgt. Justin Ross said.

Detectives will look into whether the document is the tip of something bigger, such as an organized diploma mill or identity theft ring, or if it's a one-time thing, Ross explained.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said his key concern centered on the possible existence of a larger enterprise trying to sell bogus diplomas to teens who have not completed high school.

Cynthia Re Phillips is listed in Pasco directory information as having attended Zephyrhills High School through January 2013, but not having graduated.

Browning said he had staff members look into the document after a female student called his office with questions. He did not know whether the student was Phillips, but said she wanted to know why the diploma could not be used to gain access to college courses.

The district would not provide contact information for the student.

"I think the student thought it was a real diploma," Browning said.

A quick look revealed key problems, though, beyond the duplicated signatures. The biggest tip-off: It does not include the name of a Pasco County school.

CHS Inc. High School is the name of a former home-school group based in Zephyrhills. The principal whose signature appears at the bottom of the document, Nina G.S. Duffield, is listed in state corporate records as the registered agent and president of CHS Inc., also known as Country Home School Inc.

Officially, CHS Inc. has not been in business for several years, though.

It has not responded to the Florida Department of Education annual home-schooling survey since 2006. It filed a notice of corporate dissolution with the Department of State in 2009.

Duffield did not return messages for this story.

Tiffany Cowie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the department had no record of other complaints about diplomas — false or otherwise — from CHS Inc. High School. She said the state does not track the activities of independent unlicensed educational groups.

Staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Pasco school district, Sheriff's Office investigate phony diploma 03/04/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 10:21pm]

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