NEW ORLEANS -- On Hickory Street in Uptown New Orleans, not far from the Riverbend area, you may not notice it, but you'll find a university.
According to an FBI search warrant, a duplex in the 8200 block of Hickory is the Internet's Columbus University. The FBI confirms that it recently raided it as part of an investigation, calling it a "diploma mill," and its business of selling diplomas, a fraud.
An FBI spokesperson would not offer any additional comment, calling this an ongoing investigation. But in its search warrant, the FBI lays out a scenario that it says is designed to deceive would-be students from all over the world, and it says the university’s operators are doing so on computers inside the house.
Columbus University would mail out diplomas, law degrees and doctorates, according to FBI agents, in courses like psychology, chemistry, nursing, biology and dozens more, even though the online university has only one professor and no one qualified to award doctorates.
Additionally, Columbus University has no state accreditation from Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama, where it claims to operate, meaning the degrees are worthless.
According to the FBI, Columbus operators are getting help keeping it a secret from students, from a well-known person in a strange place.
The search warrant says Michael O’Keefe Sr., a high-ranking Louisiana state senator for 24 years, was providing instructions to the school's director, a Dr. Mary Martin. That includes not telling students about the true nature of Columbus University's operations, according to the FBI.
The FBI also alleges that the 78-year-old former senate president was doing so from inside of the Butner federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, where he's serving 19 years for stealing from a failed insurance company.
Former U.S. attorney Harry Rosenberg said O’Keefe could be a central figure in the university probe.
“It suggests that O’Keefe was actually the one being the mastermind behind all this, because he was giving instructions as to how to run this diploma mill,” Rosenberg said.
When O’Keefe went to jail in 1999, it marked a third federal conviction, the end of a decades’ long legal battle, and a fall from grace and power.
“I am 67 years old. My life is about to end anyhow, but what they've put my family through. It's unbelievable," an emotional O’Keefe said in 1999 after his sentencing.
“His downfall was one of the most spectacular, in the sense of how big it was, how powerful he was, and how far he fell, in my lifetime,” said Clancy DuBos, Channel 4 political analyst and Gambit political columnist.
DuBos said the power broker used to be called the "snowman."
"They said he could walk across a field of snow and not leave tracks. Well, that was in the 1970s and '80s. Nowadays, with technology and the federal government having all of its vast powers, it’s very hard to weave webs that can't be seen,” DuBos said.
Also inside of Butner prison is O’Keefe's son, Michael O’Keefe Jr. He's doing 18 months for a house-flipping scam involving the federal government. Based on the search warrant of the Hickory Street duplex, the FBI confiscated five pages worth of materials, several computers and hard drives, bank and payroll records and 25 boxes of documents. One of them was listed as bank and tax records for Michael O’Keefe Jr.
“This seems to smack of uniqueness, because you've got father and son, both of whom are serving time for federal offenses,” Rosenberg said. “And now both are being investigated again for criminal activities that seem to overlap with their prior offenses.”
There is a history that goes back three decades between Michael O’Keefe Sr. and Columbus University's leader, Mary Martin, who was then Mary Blacksher, and served as O’Keefe's accountant. In the early 1980s, both were indicted in a $6 million bank fraud case.
Eyewitness News went to the house on Hickory Street, looking for Dr. Mary Martin and answers about the FBI's probe and the O’Keefe's alleged involvement. A young woman working on a computer in the front room answered the door and said she would get Mary Martin, who never came.
"We're not going to comment,” the woman answering the door said.
According to the FBI search warrant, the working operations of Columbus University, in business for a decade, are three women on computers, including Martin. The FBI says she has no advanced degrees. Another woman identified by the FBI is Dr. Shannon O'Brien, the school’s lone professor for 50 degrees offered, whom the FBI says awarded herself a doctorate from Columbus University. The third woman, according to the search warrant, is Helen Anglade.
You can view the Columbus website in English, French or Arabic. The FBI says that’s because Columbus has an affiliate school in Saudi Arabia, and that a Saudi business partner sends money and a list of names to Hickory Street, then the diplomas are mailed back overseas to foreign students.
According to the website, degrees -- or as the website lists them, “degres,” one of several misspelled words on the site -- range from $3,000 for a bachelor’s degree, to $3,600 hundred for a master’s degree and $4,200 for a doctorate.
The FBI says the money flows from students to a company called Administrative Inc., which lists 3623 Canal St. as its official address. The building used to house the O’Keefe and O’Keefe law firm as well as Citywide Mortgage, the company at the center of the scandal that sent Michael O’Keefe Jr. to prison.
WWL went to the building to find Administrative Inc., but found no evidence of any of their businesses, only stacked up desks and file cabinets from the O’Keefe law firm, and nothing that speaks to Administrative Inc. or Columbus University.
Despite multiple e-mails and calls for a response, Eyewitness News did not hear back from any Columbus representatives.
Using an alias, a reporter applied to Columbus University for next semester, leaving a phone message, and applying online.
There was this response: "While I thank you for your interest, the university is not accepting new students at this time." It was signed by Shannon O'Brien, faculty adviser for Columbus University.
Again, the FBI says O’Brien is not only the adviser, she's the faculty.
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