MADISON, Wis. — A lifelong con man imprisoned in Wisconsin worked with associates outside the walls to operate a suspected diploma mill that was recruiting students for at least two years until authorities uncovered the scheme, The Associated Press has learned.
Kenneth Shong, 44, helped to run "Carlingford University" while he was behind bars, according to interviews and documents obtained by AP through the state open records law. Prison authorities uncovered the scheme in late 2008, but Carlingford's Web site was taken down only this month after AP interviewed its designer.
The school was apparently just a phony moneymaking venture, according to state regulators. Its Web site claimed Carlingford had an office in Mobile, Ala., and a "regional training center" in Green Bay, but both were merely post office boxes.
Web designer Brian Truckey acknowledged in an interview that he ran Carlingford's Web site and that it contained inaccurate information he was told to post. He said Shong, an inmate at Racine Correctional Institute whose criminal career has spanned the globe, was in charge.
"We don't move forward until I get instructions from him," said Truckey, president of a small business in Green Bay called Serpent Technologies.
But Truckey insisted Carlingford was largely legitimate and added he was earning a graduate degree in exchange for running the site, which he said was his "thesis." Hours after the interview, the site was suspended.
Higher education regulators in Wisconsin and Alabama had already sent letters to Carlingford representatives asking them to cease and desist operations.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation into Carlingford, which boasted of "delivering knowledge at the speed of thought" and offering degrees that were accepted worldwide.
"It has become apparent that Carlingford University is likely part of a criminal scheme being conducted by one or more inmates or ex-inmates," David Dies, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board, wrote DOJ last year in asking for the probe.
The investigation comes as Wisconsin lawmakers consider a bill that would make it easier for prosecutors to press charges against so-called diploma mills and their customers. The bill would make it a crime to issue and use false academic credentials.
Shong, who has several aliases, including Kenneth Onapolis, has not been charged in connection with Carlingford. But he was put in isolation for 45 days as punishment after prison officials uncovered his role in late 2008 by reading his mail. A prison investigation found Shong's main partner was David Kaster, a convicted sex offender he met while serving time. Kaster, a former high school swimming coach convicted of sexually assaulting female students, was released in 2007.
He wrote to Shong on Carlingford letterhead to discuss plans to set tuition rates, design degrees and class rings for "CU" and spend money to advertise online.
At least three inmates applied to Carlingford while the prison was investigating and Kaster cashed two $35 checks covering their initial fees. The prison stopped payment on the third. Kaster also contacted groups to market the school to other inmates, the investigation found. It's unclear how many, if any, diplomas were issued or how much the scheme netted.
Investigators obtained a letter sent from Carlingford's "dean of students," another Shong associate, that congratulated inmate Kenneth Fleming for being admitted and noted he had paid $1,740 to enroll.
"Should I just send Fleming a course completion certificate with his 'grades' for the last course he took?" Kaster asked Shong in one letter. "He is looking for something like that."
Fleming wrote to an investigator last year that he considered himself a victim of the scheme and wanted restitution.
Kaster could not be reached for comment, but authorities ordered him to not have any contact with Shong or anyone associated with Carlingford.
In a telephone interview from prison, Shong acknowledged that he had advised others on how to run Carlingford but downplayed his role in the scheme.
"I would not say I'm the driving force behind anything," he said.
He claimed Carlingford was part of a legitimate London-based outfit that offered academic degrees around the world, a claim the prison investigation found untrue. Its London address was an empty storefront, it found.
Shong has been convicted of bank fraud, theft and other financial crimes and has a history of "outwitting, outplaying and outlasting authorities," as one judge wrote in 2005. After years on the run, he was captured by U.S. marshals in Vanuatu, a small island near Australia, in 2002 and returned to the United States to face federal fraud and tax evasion charges.
After his prison term ended, Wisconsin authorities brought him back to finish serving a 12-year sentence on a 1989 sentence on forgery charges. He had escaped while on parole in 1993.
Department of Justice spokesman Bill Cosh declined comment on the investigation. But Dies said investigators were poring through "a fairly large volume of material" they obtained, including bank records.
At a court hearing in 1989, Dane County prosecutor Ann Sayles said Shong used fake checks, obtained bank credit to buy an expensive car, and defrauded companies to buy plane tickets under a fake name. She called him "a professional con man" and said his shady business activities were continuing in jail. "I'm not so certain," she said, "the public is safe even with him in prison."