The city's top watchdog agency has criticized the Fire Department for awarding promotions to firefighters who purchased bogus college degrees on the Internet.

The Department of Investigation said Wednesday that 14 Fire Department members, including two deputy chiefs and three battalion chiefs, bought phony diplomas from a company in Spokane, Wash., in an attempt to meet the educational requirements for their jobs.

The operators of the company, which did business as St. Regis University, were indicted in 2005 on charges including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. The case is pending.

The Department of Investigation said fire officials failed to challenge degrees that were obviously dubious. It also said the department's policy of accepting college degrees based on "life experience," rather than actual academic sessions, created an environment ripe for abuse.

"The "degrees" that were accepted by the FDNY in 2002 and 2003 were clearly from an unaccredited institution and were utterly worthless, yet the (Fire Department) took no steps to verify their authenticity," the report said.

Fire Department spokesman Francis Gribbon said the department became aware of the problems with St. Regis University diplomas in 2003 and stopped accepting them. The department also implemented new procedures to avoid similar problems, he said.

An attorney defending the operators of St. Regis University said in October that at least 135 federal employees, including some working at the White House and National Security Agency, bought degrees from the company.