LISBON - Columbiana County Commissioner John Payne is being asked to resign by an election opponent, who says Payne is misleading voters by claiming to have a legitimate doctorate degree.
"I'm asking him to resign because he's misrepresented himself as a candidate ... and if he doesn't, I'm considering filing charges with the ethics commission," said John Wargo during a press conference held Thursday.
Wargo is running in the Nov. 6 election against Payne in what is a three-way race, with the other candidate being Tim Weigle.
At issue is a doctorate degree Payne obtained from Northwestern International University (NIU), which Wargo says is an unaccredited online college he compared to a "diploma mill."
Payne has listed the degree on his resume and campaign literature and also sometimes uses Ph.D. - the abbreviation for doctor of philosophy - next to his name.
Wargo said after becoming suspicious, he checked into it and learned NIU offers doctorate degrees for $495. "For $450 you can get your degree. For $450 I can get a set of tires down at No. 1 Snyder," he said.
Payne said he has done nothing wrong and has no intention of resigning, saying he earned the doctorate degree in 2006. His dissertation was on personnel policy of Ohio's boards of elections and took him 18 months to research and write, which involved contacting all 88 election boards. Payne, who was county elections board director at the time, said he did this as a personal challenge.
"This was simply another goal I had for myself. Again, I did not use it to promote myself for any type of employment," he said.
Wargo disputed this, saying Payne is clearly trying to use his online doctorate to curry favor with voters, noting it is listed on his campaign literature and elsewhere.
"This was done to deceive the public, to give them some feeling that this man is important and highly educated," he said.
According to Payne's resume, he also has a bachelor's degree from Kent State University and a master's degree from the University of Dayton. He listed the doctorate on his campaign literature because "it's part of my credentials. They are an accredited school, an online school," Payne said of NIU, adding, "It's overseas accredited. It's not some kind of diploma mill or whatever."
A "diploma mill" is defined as an unaccredited university, which may be legal in some states but is generally considered an illegitimate university. According to its website, NIU is accredited by the Euro-American Accreditation Agency, which is a division of NIU. An official with the regional office of the organization that accredits colleges in Ohio and 18 other states said NIU is not listed with it as an accredited university.
Wargo said as best he can determine, NIU is based out of Gibraltar, and the English-speaking professors listed on the website are all from various Russian universities.
Before going public with his charges, Wargo said he spoke with an acquaintance, Dr. Thomas Shipka, a retired professor and chairman of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Youngstown State University. Shipka said Wargo called him this week and asked him what he knew about NIU, and his research led him to conclude it was a diploma mill.
"If it barks like a dog and wags its tale like a dog, it's probably a dog," he said.
Shipka confirmed he told Wargo degrees from unaccredited online universities are worthless and should be excluded from anyone's resume, let alone someone running for public office. He said those with legitimate doctorate degrees should be offended most of all.
"This particular institution is essentially a place to go, if you have sufficient money, to get a sheepskin to call yourself doctor," Shipka said.
Payne said he is proud of his doctorate degree. "It's an academic goal I set for myself and I achieved it. I'm not going to hide it," he said.
Payne attributed Wargo's attack to election-year politics. "It's the campaign season, I understand that. It's a specious argument," he said of the criticism.
"It's a credibility issue ... I didn't put it forth. He put it forth," Wargo said.
Payne, who was appointed to the vacant commissioner seat earlier in the year, is a Democrat, while Wargo is a Democrat running as an independent. Weigle is a Republican.