The three letters were displayed prominently on George Buck's campaign website, right after his name: Ph.D.
Check his campaign finance records and those, too, display his doctorate.
There's no question that Buck, a Republican primary candidate for U.S. House District 13 — the seat currently held by incumbent Democrat Charlie Crist — received a doctoral degree.
However, there are questions about the legitimacy of the school that conferred it.
Buck, 62, went to LaSalle University, a defunct correspondence school in Louisiana — not the private college in Philadelphia.
About six months after he got his Doctor of Philosophy in Public Administration in January 1996, FBI agents raided and shut down the school on suspicion it was defrauding students.
The school's leader, Thomas Kirk, faced a long list of criminal charges including money laundering and tax evasion. He later pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit tax evasion, wire fraud and credit card fraud. Kirk set up the school under the World Christian Church, which protected it from many state regulations, according to media reports at the time.
He admitted he opened the school in 1989 to make money by misleading students. He also acknowledged the school's accreditation agency, the Council on Post-Secondary Christian Education, only existed on paper, according to media reports.
"This place was a fraud from the get-go," said former FBI agent Allen Ezell, who investigated schools like LaSalle that are widely known as diploma mills.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Buck said he believes his doctorate is legitimate because of the work he put into his dissertation.
He showed a bound copy of the document, entitled Target: Main Street, USA (Is Government Ready for Urban Violence or Terrorism). It was 307 pages and included a bibliography that cited 14 articles, seven reports, three books and three transcripts as sources.
"I feel comfortable saying that I did the work for the Ph.D," Buck said, "and I had no intent to defraud anybody, and I worked very hard for that."
However, soon after the Times inquired about his doctorate, he removed the "PhD"beside his name from his campaign website, georgebuckjr.com. He said at first he listed it because he was proud of the work.
But he later removed it because he was "trying to eliminate a controversy."
• • •
Buck is a longtime firefighter, he said, who served in the Army, Air Force Reserve and the Florida National Guard. He later worked at St. Petersburg College when it was still a junior college, according to his personnel file there, then worked at the University of South Florida. He said he is now a consultant in the field of catastrophic management and has written books on the topic, some of which grew from his dissertation.
He received his bachelor's in applied arts and sciences from the University of North Texas in 1990 and started his master's there.
Exactly when Buck enrolled at LaSalle is unclear. The earliest course date on a transcript he provided was September 1993. He earned his Master of Science in Public Administration from LaSalle in April 1995 as part of a joint degree program, he said.
A more complete transcript from Buck's USF personnel file shows several of his classes were categorized as "course granted," meaning he took a similar course at another college or earned credits through life or work experience.
Buck listed classes from North Texas in the LaSalle course exemption forms he provided to the Times. He also included some work experience at employers including SPC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He started working as an "instructor-in-charge" at SPC in 1994, according to her personnel file, where he helped develop emergency management and terrorism preparedness programs. An evaluation notes he "is well-recognized around the county and the world as a subject-matter expert" in those areas.
USF officials made Buck a visiting associate professor in 2000. His responsibilities included serving as deputy director of the Center for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance and teaching graduate courses in disaster management, according to his appointment letter.
That correspondence addressed him as Dr. George Buck, as do several other letters and memos in his file. That was until April 2004, when a memo from the dean of the College of Public Health to another administrator requesting his termination referred to him as "Mr. Buck." Buck resigned about a week later from his post at the time as a faculty administrator.
USF Health spokeswoman Anne DeLotto Baier said she could not speculate on why the salutations differ or why his appointment wasn't renewed because the school administrators involved in that matter no longer work there. A doctoral degree is required to teach graduate-level courses, she said.
But while USF didn't have an answer, Buck did.
"The degree," he said. When asked to elaborate: "The incident was they said it wasn't accredited. That was the only reason."
• • •
That makes Buck part of a long line of academics and officials ensnared by their LaSalle credentials. A search of media reports reveal many such cases: a former New Jersey sheriff and Port Authority employee, a Texas nutritionist advising U.S. Olympic swimmers, a Michigan State House candidate.
A 2004 government report weeding out federal employees who obtained degrees from "diploma mills and other unaccredited schools" included an employee who attended LaSalle. That employee called his master's degree a "joke" and said he didn't attend classes or take any tests, according to the report.
John Bear, who along with Ezell co-authored the book Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas, said LaSalle didn't give out fake degrees — but it did commit fraud by making certain claims about degrees. The most persuasive detail when assessing a LaSalle degree, he said, is Kirk's fate.
"The founder, president, owner of the school pleaded guilty," Bear said. "What else do you need to know in terms of legitimacy?"
Still, Buck maintains his degree holds weight because he obtained it legally at the time and poured time and research into his dissertation. He produced correspondence from two faculty advisors regarding his dissertation, calling it "superb" and "quite simply, exceptional" as well as a letter asking him if he wanted to become an adjunct professor.
He said it went through a review process and was supposed to be published through the school's library system. But he acknowledged that, knowing what he knows now about LaSalle, that probably didn't happen.
"I never visited or verified it first. You just took it for granted because this is the early-on of long-distance education programs," he said, adding that he's not trying to hide anything.
"I do feel I'm educated enough and have enough experience to show that I'm a dedicated, intelligent person."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.