By Wes Ferguson and Jonathan York
Published Sept. 9, 2003, in The Daily Texan
One day, Umer Zaman disappeared. It happened this summer when the economics senior quit answering his door or picking up his phone. Neighbors at his Riverside-area complex stopped hearing his music; they noticed his blinds had been closed for weeks.
Zaman, from Islamabad, Pakistan, does not speak with his former roommates. He no longer works at the Graduate and International Admission Center, and he no longer is enrolled at the University.
It’s possible that Zaman, 22, does not want to be found.
Friends and administrative sources interviewed by The Daily Texan confirmed Zaman is at the center of a UT investigation into transcript fraud. When applying to UT-Austin, he allegedly forged course credit from a Pakistani university for himself and at least two friends, improving their chances of gaining admission.
In Zaman’s case, he may have never even attended that university.
Friends think Zaman is in Pakistan now. He has not responded to their e-mails or to e-mailed requests for an interview from the Texan. When reached over the summer, he denied the allegations.
Though Zaman and his friends are accused of a potential felony offense, UT investigators have not consulted any domestic law-enforcement agency in the matter. A UT official said the University’s International Office did notify U.S. immigration authorities.
And while the forged transcripts allowed these students to obtain their student visas, the University tried to keep the security breach from coming to light.
Asim Khattak was up late Thursday. Staring blankly at the back wall of his efficiency, Khattak retold how he’d worked hard to get into the University. How he’d kept up a 3.0 grade point average since enrolling in Spring 2002, and how he used to be friends with Umer Zaman.
He also spoke of fear.
“I think I’m going to be expelled and deported,” he said.
Khattak claims he first heard news of the doctored transcripts when a UT official contacted him in early August.
He said the official’s charges stunned him: that Zaman, Khat-tak and another friend from Pakistan, Iqbal Shahid, faked their transcripts to get into the University.
Khattak says he is innocent, but he does not think the UT officials hearing his case will believe him.
“I am very pessimistic,” he said.
Khattak, an economics senior, was enrolled at International Islamic University between 1998 and 2002, according to the registrar. The same time that Zaman, his old high school buddy, was supposed to be there. He said he was enrolled, but Zaman was not.
Khattak, Zaman and Shahid, a computer sciences senior, were friends in Islamabad. Zaman wanted to make sure they attended the same university in the United States, according to a friend who said he had seen one of the doctored transcripts.
Zaman used a computer to duplicate a transcript from Islamic University, added letterhead and a watermark not on the original and boosted Khattak’s and Shahid’s grades to improve their chances for admission at the University, said the friend, who asked that his name not be used. Zaman drew up another transcript for himself.
“It was really quite simple,” said the friend. “It looked more valid than the original actually did.”
Khattak claims he and Shahid never knew that Zaman had tampered with their transcripts. He said Zaman, who worked until July in the international admissions office, had access to student records and may have continued more forgery.
Students with knowledge of the investigation have said up to 10 people in all may be involved.
Khattak, who expected to graduate in December, said he has been attending Student Judicial Services hearings in hopes of clearing his name.
“I’ve been in school for five years,” he said. “I’ve worked way too hard to give up now.”
He said Shahid is also fighting the University’s charges. Attempts to reach Shahid at home and at his job were unsuccessful.
Khattak fears returning to Pakistan, where he said Zaman’s friends have threatened him and warned him not to cooperate with the University in its investigation.
But the prospect of staying in the United States does not seem any more appealing. He worries about retribution from Americans who will look at him and think “terrorist.”
“I feel very threatened because of my nationality, my religion, my race,” he said. “If I had known it was going to be like this, I would not have come here.”
A laid-back guy
Zaman arrived at the Univer-sity in spring 2002, according to the registrar’s office. The Web site he shared with friends shows the only picture of him to be found in Austin: a slender man, 5-feet-11-inches tall, with light tan skin, dark hair and a moustache and goatee. Clad in a gray, buttoned shirt and khakis, he leans against a railing, staring coolly into the camera.
He lived in the Sandpiper apartments in West Campus, near several other Pakistani students. Friends said he was laid-back, extroverted and good with Web sites.
He worked well with others at the international admissions office, Rachel Herrera, a co-worker, remembered. He seemed comfortable in his environment.
“Unless he had told me he was an international student – his accent was really faint – I had no clue he hadn’t been here for a long time,” Herrera said.
He would chat about computers with a classmate in Information in Cyberspace, LIS 312. In that class, he was the group leader for a project on Internet gambling.
To Stanley Gunn Jr., the instructor, Zaman was straightforward. Intelligent.
“It’s a class of 28 students, and some participate more than others, and frankly, I liked him,” Gunn said.
When told of the alleged forgery, Gunn remembered that Shahid, the third accused friend, also took his class, back in spring 2002. Then, Shahid had e-mailed him with a mysterious problem.
“He said that there was some mix-up, something to the effect that some of the paperwork that he filed wasn’t what it should be,” Gunn said. “He was afraid he wouldn’t be a student at the University.”
Gunn said Shahid’s problem developed because “somebody, when he was in Pakistan, had offered to file some paperwork for him.”
Shahid wanted the instructor to write a letter of support to the ombudsman. Gunn was willing, but he never heard from Shahid again.
If Shahid’s problem involved the forged transcripts, this was not the only time the accused students sought help. They visited Brian Haley, Student Govern-ment president, over the summer to discuss their case, which was then pending with Student Judicial Services. Haley said he referred them to the ombudsman.
Zaman’s last enrollment date at the University was this summer. Friends said he was one class shy of graduation. He never finished.
Hidden behind FERPA
After Zaman left, a lid of official secrecy closed tightly over his affairs.
A former co-worker said some international admissions employees were told not to talk with the press about him. The supervisor of Zaman’s office would not comment. Other employees also would not answer questions.
The director of the international office refused to discuss Zaman’s case or confirm the existence of an investigation.
Teresa Graham Brett, dean of students, would not provide specific information about the cases, fearing the students could face “threats and retribution” if she did so.
“It’s just general concern about those involved,” said Brett, whose office oversees Student Judicial Services. “We’re trying to hold that information pretty closely.”
Brett added that transcript fraud at the University “is probably more common than we’d like to imagine.”
UT officials would not say how they had identified the forgery.
To justify their secrecy, administrators cited the Federal Educa-tional Right to Privacy Act, which is invoked routinely to close most records of student violations.
Even when these records concern criminal acts – such as hazing, fraud or sexual assault – the privacy laws have been used by institutions of higher learning to keep information from reporters’ inquiries and open records requests.
Crimes usually become public knowledge through police reports and court records. But when the University conducts its own investigations and proceedings without law enforcement, it may choose to disclose neither crime nor punishment under FERPA.
“It’s not uncommon that a student could violate the law and not be arrested and still go through Student Judicial Services,” said UT Police Chief Jeffrey Van Slyke. “Whatever they handle through Student Judicial Services is their own business. We never really get involved.”
Brett said Student Judicial Services “almost never” brings cases to UTPD, which is the University’s first contact with law enforcement.
The transcript fraud was no exception. Van Slyke said the University did not involve UTPD in investigating Zaman and his friends.
Rene Salinas, an FBI spokesman in San Antonio, said his agency also never investigated. Immigration investigators would be more suited to the case, Salinas said.
Brett told the Texan she expected the University will deny an open records request for documents about the forgery and 37 other cases of records fraud committed in the past five years.
Substance to their fears
It’s hard to say how much attention U.S. officials have paid to the forgery.
A federal source who spoke on condition of anonymity said similar cases at other institutions have shown up on daily intelligence summaries but never before at the University. He also said the U.S. government would be interested in Zaman’s case.
The University called immigration, but the accused students’ friends and apartment manager said they were never questioned by agents. Homeland Security officials would not comment.
It’s also hard to say what will happen to Khattak and Shahid.
Karen Pennington, an immigration lawyer who represented several Dallas-area Muslims in post-Sept. 11 deportation hearings, said it is likely the students will be charged with an immigration violation and face deportation.
While they could be prosecuted for such felonies as providing false information to the government, an immigration charge would not require a criminal conviction, Pennington said.
But their fates are not yet determined. Even if they were charged, an immigration court would take circumstances into account. And the student judicial cases have yet to be resolved.
Pennington, a UT graduate, said the University processes too many international applications to verify each transcript efficiently.
“There is a certain amount of trust built into the system,” she said.
Dheeraj Sood, a UT graduate from India, worked with Zaman in the international admissions office. He said he felt compelled to call the office and say he had no role in the deception.
“The only thing I’m pissed off about – I’m not sure if [the transcript fraud] is true or not – even if it’s not true, people assume that everybody from that part of the world is like this,” Sood said. “I didn’t do anything. I would never do anything like this.”