TEMPLE TERRACE — For years, Temple Terrace Mayor Mel Jurado has tied her identity to her academic credentials.
Her email address is "AskDrMel" and she once drove a car with a "DRMEL" personal license plate. A Ph.D. in psychology is listed on her resume and web biographies along with two master's degrees — one in psychology and the other in sports medicine.
But records show Jurado's Ph.D. is from an unaccredited correspondence school called LaSalle University, a notorious diploma mill that was based in Mandeville, La.
And the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says it never issued her a master's degree in exercise physiology and sports medicine, as she has claimed on at least two applications for government positions.
Jurado told the Tampa Bay Times she was unaware LaSalle was a diploma mill until a reporter told her several weeks ago. She presented a transcript and a 460-plus page dissertation that she said was based on research she did for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Tampa.
"I know I did the work,'' said Jurado, 59.
As for the master's in sports medicine, Jurado said she has records proving she received the degree in 1983. But she did not respond to repeated calls, emails and a registered letter asking her to provide a transcript or certificate and to explain why the University of Illinois has no record of the second master's degree.
During its investigation of Jurado's academic claims, the Times talked to accreditation and academic experts, a former FBI agent and an authority on diploma mills. Reporters also reviewed Jurado's applications to public agencies.
Among the findings:
• Jurado did not typically disclose where she earned her Ph.D. when she listed her credentials on websites or in job applications.
• At Jurado's page on LinkedIn, a networking website for professionals, her Ph.D. was listed as coming from LaSalle but with the logo and a link to a different La Salle University, this one a well-regarded Catholic university in Philadelphia.
• Jurado failed to distinguish between the unaccredited correspondence school and the Catholic university in a 2005 application she completed after Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the Hillsborough County Early Learning Coalition. The form simply lists her Ph.D. as coming from "La Salle."
• Both that application and one sent to the Children's Board of Hillsborough County in 2013 included the master's degree in sports medicine.
• For almost a year following her swearing-in as mayor in 2017, her biography on the Temple Terrace website erroneously stated she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. It still says that on a biography at the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. website.
Jurado told Times reporters she had not looked at her biography on the city website. If it was wrong, she said, it was a "city error."
"I know what my bio is and what I give people," she said.
But Temple Terrace emails obtained through a public records request show that city marketing manager Laurie Hayes emailed Jurado a draft copy of the biography and asked for any changes or additions on Nov. 8, one day after Jurado was sworn in as mayor.
Jurado replied to the email without suggesting any corrections.
The only place the Times found where Jurado fully disclosed that her Ph.D was from LaSalle in Louisiana was on her application to the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, Times research shows.
She didn't get the job.
• • •
Jurado is more than just a small-city mayor.She and husband Rod Jurado are both active in local Republican politics. Her Facebook page includes photos of her alongside Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
She has served on more than a dozen state and local boards and twice has received appointments from the Florida governor. Her service includes five years on the Florida Boxing Commission and nine years on the University of South Florida Athletic Association board of directors. For about 15 months, she was director of the Florida Office of Early Learning, astate agency that at the time had a $1 billion-plus budget.
In 1991, she founded The Profitable Group, a human resources, training and consulting firm. She cited her academic credentials while securing contracts with dozens of companies, non-profit organizations and governments. The list includes the Hillsborough and Polk County school boards and the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Jurado enrolled at LaSalle in 1994, several years before the Internet would render correspondence courses obsolete. She already had a bachelor's and master's degree in psychology but wanted a Ph.D.
She said she was told about LaSalle by someone at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, which did not have a Ph.D. psychology program. At that time, USF offered only a dual master's and Ph.D., she said.
La Salle charged about $2,300 to study for a Ph.D., records show. Over the next two years, Jurado said, she mailed and received study materials.
"Nothing ever felt hinky to me," she said. "I was told what papers to write. They were graded. I got feedback. I proposed my dissertation work. It was no different than what I experienced at U of I."
Jurado was given a Ph.D in March 1996. Just a few months later, the school was raided by FBI agents and closed down.
Investigators found that even though the school had upward of 6,000 students at the time, there were never more than 10 people grading papers. In many instances, they were unqualified to assess the courses they worked on, the indictment stated. In some cases, grades were awarded not on content, but simply by weighing the submission.
The school had even set up a fake accreditation agency with a Washington D.C. answering service and P.O. Box to deal with student's inquiries about the school.
The scheme worked. Between 1989 and June 1996, the school took in about $36.5 million from about 15,000 students.
"They had droves of students complaining, students being snookered,'' said Allen Ezell, a retired FBI agent who created and headed the agency's diploma mill investigations unit. With John Bear, Ezell co-wrote the book, Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas.
Bear said the sales people from LaSalle were shrewd.
"They got a sense by telephone of what the person wanted,'' he said.
If a potential student said, for example, that he had 17 years in business, the salesperson would say that his real-life experience already qualified him for a master's degree in business administration, Bear said.
Jurado, who had been working as a consultant for about four years, said the school gave her 12 graduate credit hours for life experience but said she still had to complete 20 credit hours of study.
In 1996, school founder Thomas Kirk pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion and admitted that he had defrauded students. He was sentenced to five years in a federal prison camp in Beaumont, Texas, where he set up another diploma mill while in jail, Ezell said. Kirk died in 2008.
In 1997, the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans sent letters to all LaSalle students offering them a portion of the money seized if they returned their diplomas and transcripts.
Few returned them, Ezell said.
Jurado told the Times she never received such a letter and was never offered a refund.
• • •
Short for Doctor of Philosophy, a Ph.D. requires a student to produce a paper that includes original research adding to the knowledge in their subject area.
Among the requirements are a literature review and a dissertation. A doctorate is only awarded after the student has successfully defended the dissertation before a panel of qualified academics.
Jurado allowed Times reporters to photograph the table of contents and leaf through her dissertation. It included a literature review, methodology, findings and a conclusion. She would not allow reporters to photocopy the whole document.
She said her Ph.D. explored ways to measure increases in self-esteem for children who attended the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa. The method she developed was adopted at the time by the service organization, she said.
Her defense of the dissertation was done during a meeting that was videotaped and sent to LaSalle, she said. Representatives from the United Way, the Tampa Police Department, Hillsborough County Public Schools and the state Department of Juvenile Justice were present, she added.
She could not remember all the individuals in attendance but was sure they included former Circuit Judge Dennis Alvarez and then-Boys and Girls Club president Glenn Permuy.
"They affirmed it for validity, reliability and appropriateness," she said. "I forwarded that work to LaSalle who confirmed the work, conferred by doctorate."
Alvarez said he recalled Jurado making a presentation but did not remember whether it was given as a dissertation defense.
Permuy said he had no recollection of any presentation by Jurado or a meeting being videotaped. He did not recall any program she devised being adopted and said Rod Jurado was more active in the club at the time than his wife.
"I vaguely remember her being involved in the organization," Permuy said.
Experts contacted by the Times said any degree from LaSalle would not be recognized as legitimate by traditional scholars.
"It's fake ... completely fake,'' said George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has worked to expose diploma mills.
Dwayne Smith, vice provost at the University of South Florida, said if a person with a Ph.D. from LaSalle applied for a faculty position that required the degree, "it's highly, highly unlikely that person would be hired.''
Twelve states have laws prohibiting or restricting the use of unaccredited diplomas for any purpose, according to a paper Gollin and fellow scholars wrote for the Stanford Law and Policy Review in 2010. Florida is not one of the 12 states.
In 2000, Bear, who has a Ph.D. in communications from Michigan State University, conducted diploma mill research with Rich Douglas, a long time Air Force education officer. They sent questionnaires to 300 university registrars asking whether they would accept degrees from a variety of schools "always, usually, sometimes, rarely or never.''
"The LaSalle response was 'never' in every case,'' Bear said.
Jurado's credentials did not set off alarm bells with her clients.
Lance Anastasio, chairman of the Polk County Citizens HealthCare Oversight Committee, said his panel was not looking at her qualifications when it hired Jurado to devise a way to measure how agencies were delivering health care to the poor.
"To my knowledge, no one saw a need to check her credentials,'' said Anastasio, retired president and chief executive of Winter Haven Hospital. "We needed to know what her success rate is.''
That Jurado was able to come up with a solution in an eight-hour meeting is a testament to her organizational skills, he said.
"We were quite pleased with her job,'' Anastasio said.
Walter "Butch'' Flansburg, president of the executive board of the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame, said Jurado "is a very, very bright person'' who serves on the board and specializes in corporate governance and guidance.
Flansburg said he's never discussed her credentials with her.
When asked if it would make any difference, he said, "This is the first I'm hearing about it'' and he would not make an immediate judgment call.
Jurado has received glowing reviews from her seminar participants, according to responses included in her application to the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. Participants praised her dynamic speaking style and sense of humor, and say they took away valuable lessons.
"Down to earth, truthful, hit the nail on the head as to the problems we face with other people every day and gave us practical solutions,'' wrote Nicole Maurais of Disney World.
"In all the times we have provided in-service training for our leaders and staff, I can never remember a better program! '' wrote Varlorie Ellspermann of the Munroe Regional Medical Center, now Florida Hospital, Ocala.
A number of public officials who also received degrees from LaSalle have had their credentials publicly questioned, including a Cape Coral city manager candidate in 2010, a New Jersey port official in 2013, and a school superintendent in Pennsylvania in 2014.
The city manager candidate was ruled ineligible for the position. The New Jersey port official was fired and the Pennsylvania superintendent retired six months early after residents questioned her salary.
In July, the Times reported that George Buck, a Republican running against Democrat Charlie Crist on Nov. 6 for the U.S. House District 13 seat, received his doctorate in public administration from the defunct LaSalle.
Buck removed the "Ph.D." next to his name on his campaign website.
Just a few days after Jurado met with reporters, her online biography and LinkedIn profile were updated.
Her revised biography still lists her Ph.D. from LaSalle.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.