Three Florida nursing schools sold thousands of fake nursing diplomas worth millions in a scheme that allowed aspiring nurses to bypass the required training to become licensed in the profession, federal prosecutors alleged Thursday.
Siena College, Palm Beach School of Nursing and Sacred Heart International Institute - all based in south Florida - combined to distribute more than 7,600 fraudulent diplomas worth over $100 million or roughly $15,000 per diploma, federal prosecutors said. All schools are now defunct.
Twenty-five defendants, including school directors and diploma recipients, were charged in the scheme and each face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Attorneys for defendants were not listed in a federal court database Thursday.
The Department of Justice along with the Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General carried out the investigation, dubbed Operation Nightingale. Prosecutors said the scheme put patient safety at risk as required training programs exist to "protect the public from harm by setting minimum qualifications and competencies."
The charges in nursing diploma case
The DOJ is prosecuting participants in the alleged scheme in five separate cases. Defendants in each case face wire fraud-related charges. Wire fraud is charged when a defendant uses interstate electronic communications to commit a fraud and "to further the scheme," according to federal law.
The alleged scheme
According to the OIG, the scheme general worked in three parts:
Recruiters helped aspiring nurses obtain the fake degrees and transcripts
Fraudulent degrees qualified recipients to take the national nursing board exam.
After passing the exam, they became eligible to become licensed in several states, where they eventually found jobs as licensed nurses.
Siena College was a school in Broward County, Florida that was licensed by the state's board of nursing and its independent education commission to offer practical nursing and Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs, according to a criminal complaint.
The college was run by Eunide Sanon, who allegedly worked with three people, who are also charged, in New York and New Jersey who recruited aspiring nurses.
From about Nov. 2018 to Oct. 2021, Sanon allegedly sold 2,016 fake diplomas and transcripts that falsely purported that recipients had completed the necessary courses and training at Siena College to obtain such degrees when they never had, according to the criminal complaint.
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Palm Beach School of Nursing
From April 2016 to July 2021, at least seven nurses obtained fake diplomas from the Palm Beach School of Nursing, Sunshine Academy, Quisqeya and Florida College of Health, which were all owned by Johanah Napoleon.
The seven nurses used the diplomas to become licensed nurses in Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
With the help of the fake degrees the nurses found jobs at nursing homes that took in Medicare and Medicaid-eligible patients. One nurse worked at a Veterans Affairs-run home.
Ten people helped recruit people looking to obtain fake degrees.
Napoleon received large payments for providing the fake diplomas, in one case taking in a $30,000 wire transfer from a co-defendant in 2021. Napoleon already pleaded guilty to wire and health care fraud charges, the DOJ said.
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Sacred Heart International Institute
From Nov. 2020 to July 2021, Charles Etienne, owner of Sacred Heart International Institute, and two others provided purchasers with 588 fake diplomas and transcripts, according to court filings.
Two co-defendants, Geralda Adrien and Woosvelt Predestin, also completed online courses on behalf of the fake degree purchasers.
Adrien and Predestin are also named as co-conspirators in the Siena College case.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida nursing schools sold thousands of fake diplomas totaling $100M