The Star-Ledger   Newark, NJ
Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Burn foundation exec faces perjury counts  -  Virginia says he lied about his credentials
by William T. Quinn and David Ress, Star-Ledger Staff

 

Gary Stocco, the executive director of the National Burn Victim

Foundation, will be arraigned today in a circuit court in Manassas, Va.,

on charges that he lied about his professional background while

testifying there at a murder trial last year.

 

  Stocco plans to plead not guilty, said David Schertler, one of his

attorneys.

 

  Stocco has acknowledged listing two degrees from the University of San

Moritz, an institution that has been identified as a diploma mill, among

his credentials, but insists he never lied about his background.

 

  "We're still in the dark about exactly where they think Gary misled,"

Schertler said yesterday.

 

  According to John Bear, a leading expert on nontraditional

universities, a diploma mill sells degrees to all comers. Bear said the

University of San Moritz has no physical campus. He said it once had an

address in Switzerland and a mail drop in London.

 

  Stocco, a 32-year-old West Orange resident, surrendered to Prince

William County authorities and his bail was set at $10,000 with a 10

percent cash option. He posted the bail yesterday, said Schertler, who

expects the case to be scheduled for trial in the fall.

 

  Paul Ebert, the Commonwealth Attorney for Prince William County, would

not elaborate on the perjury charges except to say that, in Virginia,

the law says perjury occurs if a person says two different and

conflicting things under oath. He said, however, that the perjury charge

involves what Stocco said in Virginia.

 

  Ebert said that since Stocco had testified in a number of cases in

several states, there would be extensive discovery. "We looked at cases

from well beyond the boundaries of the Commonwealth of Virginia," he

said.

 

  Ebert said he was only concerned about Stocco's alleged perjury, not

the burn victim foundation itself.

 

  "Usually, you've got two people, one says there were shots, the other

that there weren't . . . this is an important case because it's about

an expert witness," Ebert said.

 

  "The whole system relies on experts. Juries, judges, prosecutors have

to be able to know they are credible," he said.

 

  Foundation officials have backed Stocco in his current legal troubles,

and he has continued to act as its executive director. The Virginia

case surfaced two weeks ago when Stocco was arrested at his office by

Bernards Township police on a fugitive warrant a day after he was

indicted in Virginia.

 

  "We believe the charges are false and will collapse of their own

weight," Howard Sarrett, a vice president of the foundation and a member

of its executive board, said after Stocco's arrest.

 

  In the Virginia case in which Stocco testified last year, a couple

were on trial for allegedly scalding a 21/2-year-old girl and causing

her death. Stocco agreed to testify as a defense witness and was grilled

by the trial attorneys about his background. In the end, the trial judge

refused to approve him as an expert and he was not allowed to testify.

 

  "Most expert witnesses pull their qualifications to an extent," Ebert

said. "I believe he went beyond that and that's the allegation."

 

  Virginia prosecutors and lawyers say they've never heard of

prosecuting an expert witness for perjury. Perjury is tough to prove in

Virginia law, they said. And most prosecutors are inclined to let such

loose ends lie after a case is decided, they said.

 

  "It must have really stuck in Paul's craw," said R. Creigh Deeds, a

state legislator and former prosecutor who now practices law in the

state's Blue Ridge Mountains region.

 

  Deeds said Virginia prosecutors have been talking for at least a

decade about the need to look more closely at experts' expertise and

previous testimony. But he and other defense lawyers say they haven't

heard of any concerted effort to crack down by prosecuting experts.

 

  Stocco's educational background, according to attorney Lawrence Coven,

who represented him immediately after his arrest, includes bachelor's

and master's degrees obtained from the University of San Moritz,

described as a diploma mill in a 1999 book by Bear.

 

  Coven said Stocco legitimately earned the degrees from the University

of San Moritz. "These were not purchased degrees," he said. "There was

work performed."

 

  According to a transcript of Stocco's testimony in the Virginia

homicide case last year, he said that he did not have any university

degrees at that time but had been working toward a master's and

bachelor's degree at the Columbia State University in Louisiana.

 

  In an interview, Bear called Columbia another diploma mill, selling

degrees until it was shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation

about a year and a half ago. Once it disappeared, he said, many degree

seekers turned to the University of San Moritz.

 

  Efforts to reach the university at a telephone number in the New York

area have been unsuccessful.