Feds Charge 25 Nursing School Execs, Staff in Fake Diploma Scheme

At least one state licensing agency is revoking nursing licenses allegedly obtained in a multistate fake diploma scheme.

The US Department of Justice recently announced charges against 25 owners, operators, and employees of three Florida nursing schools in a fraud scheme in which they sold as many as 7600 fake nursing degrees.

The purchasers in the diploma scheme paid $10,000 to $15,000 for degrees and transcripts showing they’d received associates degrees, and some 2800 of the buyers passed the national nursing licensing exam to become registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practice nurses/vocational nurses (LPN/VNs) around the country, according to The New York Times.

Many of the degree recipients went on to work at hospitals, nursing homes, and Veterans Affairs medical centers, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida.

Several national nursing organizations cooperated with the investigation, and the Delaware Division of Professional Regulation already annulled 26 licenses, according to the Delaware Nurses Association. Fake licenses were issued in five states, according to federal reports.

“We are deeply unsettled by this egregious act,” DNA President Stephanie McClellan, MSN, RN, CMSRN, said in the group’s press statement. “We want all Delaware nurses to be aware of this active issue and to speak up if there is a concern regarding capacity to practice safely by a colleague/peer,” she said.

The Oregon State Board of Nursing is also investigating at least a dozen nurses who may have paid for their degrees, according to a Portland CBS affiliate.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing said in a statement that it had helped authorities identify and monitor the individuals who allegedly provided the false degrees.

Nursing Community Reacts

News of the fraud scheme spread through the nursing community, including social media. “The recent report on falsified nursing school degrees is both heartbreaking and serves as an eye-opener,” Usha Menon, PhD, RN, FAAN, dean and health professor of the University of South Florida Health College of Nursing, tweeted. “There was enough of a need that prompted these bad actors to develop a scheme that could’ve endangered dozens of lives.”

Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, PhD, MBA, RN, the new president of the American Nurses Association, also weighed in. “The accusation that personnel at once-accredited nursing schools allegedly participated in this scheme is simply deplorable. These unlawful and unethical acts disparage the reputation of actual nurses everywhere who have rightfully earned [their titles] through their education, hard work, dedication and time.”

The false degrees and transcripts were issued by three once-accredited and now-shuttered nursing schools in South Florida: Palm Beach School of Nursing, Sacred Heart International Institute, and Sienna College.

The alleged co-conspirators reportedly made $114 million from the scheme, which dates back to 2016, according to several news reports. Each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison.

Most LPN programs charge $10,000 to $15,000 to complete a program, Robert Rosseter, a spokesperson for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), told Medscape Medical News.

None were AACN members, and none were accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, which is AACN’s autonomous accrediting agency, Rosseter said. AACN membership is voluntary and is open to schools offering baccalaureate or higher degrees, he explained.

“What is disturbing about this investigation is that there are over 7600 people around the country with fraudulent nursing credentials who are potentially in critical health care roles treating patients,” Chad Yarbrough, acting special agent in charge for the FBI in Miami, said in the federal justice department release.

“Operation Nightingale” Based on Tip

The federal action, dubbed “Operation Nightingale” after the nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, began in 2019. It was based on a tip related to a case in Maryland, according to Nurse.org.

That case ensnared Palm Beach School of Nursing owner Johanah Napoleon, who reportedly was selling fake degrees for $6000 to $18000 each to two individuals in Maryland and Virginia. Napoleon was charged in 2021 and eventually pled guilty. The Florida Board of Nursing shut down the Palm Beach school in 2017 owing to its students’ low passing rate on the national licensing exam.

Two participants in the bigger scheme who had also worked with Napoleon, Geralda Adrien and Woosvelt Predestin, were indicted in 2021. Adrien owned private education companies for people who at aspired to be nurses, and Predestin was an employee. They were sentenced to 27 months in prison last year and helped the federal officials build the larger case.

The 25 individuals who were charged January 25 operated in Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Florida.

Schemes Lured Immigrants

In the scheme involving Siena College, some of the individuals acted as recruiters to direct nurses who were looking for employment to the school, where they allegedly would then pay for an RN or LPN/VN degree. The recipients of the false documents then used them to obtain jobs, including at a hospital in Georgia and a Veterans Affairs medical center in Maryland, according to one indictment. The president of Siena and her co-conspirators sold more than 2000 fake diplomas, according to charging documents.

At the Palm Beach College of Nursing, individuals at various nursing prep and education programs allegedly helped others obtain fake degrees and transcripts, which were then used to pass RN and LPN/VN licensing exams in states that included Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio, according to the indictment.

Some individuals then secured employment with a nursing home in Ohio, a home health agency for pediatric patients in Massachusetts, and skilled nursing facilities in New York and New Jersey.

Prosecutors allege that the president of Sacred Heart International Institute and two other co-conspirators sold 588 fake diplomas.

The FBI said that some of the aspiring nurses who were talked into buying the degrees were LPNs who wanted to become RNs and that most of those lured into the scheme were from South Florida’s Haitian American immigrant community, Nurse.org reported.

Alicia Ault is a Saint Petersburg, Florida-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA and Smithsonian.com. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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