The Fraudulent Nursing Diploma Scheme

Written by Brandon L.
February 25, 202416 min read

Did you hear what happened in Florida about the fake nursing degree scandal that rocked the nation? It's like a scene from a movie that has left many wondering how such a thing could happen. What's most surprising is that it is not an individual case but a conspiracy by institutions to issue fake nursing diplomas. Reports have revealed that thousands of individuals have been caught with fake certifications. This staggering number is causing panic across the country, with many patients and their families wondering whether they are being treated by healthcare workers who have undergone the proper training and received genuine medical certifications.

So what happened?

What Happened in the F.L. Nursing Degree Scandal?

In January 2023, the entire nation and probably the world were rocked by the news that students graduated from Florida with fake diplomas. The United States Office of the Attorney in the Southern District announced to the world that more than a dozen people, including directors of nursing schools, were apprehended and charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud by selling fake nursing degrees.

The fake nursing diplomas certified one to sit for the nursing board exams and, after passing them, to obtain a nursing license that allowed them to practice as R.N.s and LPN/VNs, according to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Markenzy Lapointe. He said, "We expect our health care professionals to be who they claim they are. Specifically, when discussing a nurse’s education and credentials — shortcut is not a word we want to use."

Markenzy added that the fake degrees weren't just tarnishing the reputations of nurses who have successfully gone through all the training but also a public safety concern.

However, many of those caught with the fake diplomas claimed they were unaware of any fraud affecting their nursing education. According to an interview carried out by Newsweek, two of the nurses said that it is hard even to mention the school they studied in because of the fear of being called an outcast. People think all those who went to those training schools are phony and shouldn't be allowed to practice until they have proven their certificates are legit.

According to officials interviewed by ABC News, the fake diplomas were issued by institutions once accredited to offer nursing training and qualify students to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). But they added that even though these students sat for these exams and passed, they skipped essential training that all nurses must undergo to determine their competency to practice.

A joint force consisting of federal agents from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) carried out a multi-state coordinated operation, dubbed "Operation Nightingale, in honor of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. ” the e operation targeted individuals responsible in the scheme for selling fake diplomas to thousands of students. 

Several search warrants were issued in operation across five states: Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Florida, resulting in 25 individuals being charged with fraud.

How Many Fake Nursing Degrees?

According to federal authorities, more than 7600 students bought diplomas for approximately $114 million between 2016 and 2021 from different South Florida schools. Each student bought the diplomas and transcripts for $10,000-$17,000 without the required nursing training. These diplomas and transcripts indicated that the recipients had successfully earned a legitimate associate degree in nursing, which takes a student two years to finish.

According to prosecutors, 2400 7600 students who got the diplomas sat for licensing exams, mainly in New York. This is because the state doesn't impose the number of times an individual can sit for the exams. These individuals then qualified to practice as nurses and licensed practical nurses or vocational nurses around different states in the USA. According to court filings ' report, those who became registered nurses got jobs in various hospitals, including Veterans Affairs medical centers in Maryland and New York, a skilled nursing facility in Ohio, and an assisted living facility in New Jersey. 

"Healthcare fraud is not a new phenomenon in South Florida. Many scammers see this as a legitimate way of earning easy money." said special agent in charge Chad Yarbrough of the Miami region office. He added that what was so disturbing about that case was that over 7600 people spread out across the country, probably practicing in critical healthcare roles with fake credentials.

When the news of the fake degree scandal first came out, the American Nursing Association (ANA) issued a strong statement reflecting shock and condemning the actions of those involved.

Were the 7600 Degrees Fake?

Yes. All the 7600 nursing degrees were fake. According to Yarbrough, if it were not for the diligence and hard work of the investigation officers, the fake nursing degree scheme could not have been uncovered, and the extent of the fraud could have been much worse.

The charges brought against the defendants speak to the purpose of the license to practice issued to all nurses who have undergone proper training, which is to guard the public against harm by setting competency standards that determine that one can practice safely.

Another federal agent of the Department of Health and Human Services, from the Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG), special agent in charge Omar Perez Aybar, added that selling fraudulent diplomas to unqualified but willing people is a crime that puts the public at risk and a big insult to the nursing profession.

The rise of fake degrees, especially for healthcare workers, is a big issue because it threatens to lower the value of genuine academic studies and qualifications. They put nursing organizations, hospitals, and healthcare research institutes at risk of reputation damage and lives in danger.

The issue of fake degree programs comes in various forms:

1. Diploma mills degree mills are phony organizations and colleges claiming to be certified educational institutions that sell certificates to individuals. Some advertise fake certificates, while others claim to conduct an assessment process before issuing the certificates, which is false. Diploma mills mainly propagated the Florida nursing degree scandal.

2. Accreditation mills are fake accreditation agencies claiming to carry out quality assurance before awarding accreditation to higher educational institutions. 

3. Forgers are individuals or organizations that produce fake tertiary certificates, claiming they are from genuine educational institutions. They use sophisticated Photoshop tools to make these certificates.

Which Florida Nursing Schools Were Involved in the Fake Nursing Diploma Scheme?

As a result of the Nightingale operation, three nursing schools -Sacred Heart Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Sienna College of Health in Lauderhill and Palm Beach School of Nursing in West Palm Beach have admitted to peddling fake diplomas to students who then failed to go through nursing training before taking the licensing exams.

Charles Etienne, 60, president of Sacred Heart International Institute in Fort Lauderdale, and Eunide Sanon, 60, owner of Siena College of Health in Lauderhill, both pleaded guilty to the charges of wired fraud. The two are facing a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. However, according to their lawyers, Tama Kudman and Mark Lowry, since they took responsibility for their actions early on, they are likely to receive a lesser sentence.

The federal charges brought against these schools include:

  1. Charges Related to Fraudulent Nursing Diplomas and Transcripts from Siena College.

U.S. v. Witherspoon et al., case no.: 23-60005-Cr-Smith

U.S. v. Sanon, case no.: 23-60013-Cr-Moreno

According to the court documents, Siena College is a Broward County school licensed by the Florida Commission for Independent Education and the Florida Board of Nursing to offer a Practical Nursing Program and an R.N. to Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program. The charges brought against the defendants from this school are conspiracy to commit and committing wire fraud.

  1. Charges Related to Fraudulent Nursing Diplomas and Transcripts from Palm Beach School of Nursing.

U.S. v. Russ et al., case no.: 23-60007-Cr-Singhal

The charging documents for this case show that Palm Beach School of Nursing's main objective was to prepare students for Florida’s licensing and nursing board requirements and become eligible to sit for the national licensing exam before working as registered nurses.

All those involved in the schemes received indictment charges of conspiring to commit and committing wire fraud.

  1. Charges Related to Fraudulent Nursing Diplomas and Transcripts from Sacred Heart International Institute

U.S. v. Jean et al., case no.: 23-60010-Cr-Smith

U.S. v. Etienne, case no.: 23-60012-Cr-Singhal

According to court documents, Sacred Heart International Institute was a Broward County School licensed by the Florida Board of Nursing to offer nursing programs that prepare students to practice as nurses. 

All the individuals who went through the programs never completed the required coursework or clinical but got LPN/VN licenses in various states, which allowed them to be hired as nurses by unwitting healthcare providers in various parts of the country.

According to prosecutors, 20 more people from South Florida-based nursing schools pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme. Among these, three individuals- Burlington County, New Jersey, residents Stanton Witherspoon and Alfred Sellu and Westchester County, New York, resident Rene Bernadel. According to prosecutors, these people pleaded guilty to soliciting nursing students for fraudulent nursing diplomas. They then worked with Sanon of Siena College to "create and distribute false and fraudulent diplomas and transcripts to individuals who had applied for nursing credentials.

The credentials held by these individuals show that the applicants had completed their training, which included clinical at the Broward County nursing program. It is alleged that the other schools named in the scheme, which has since shocked the nursing fraternity, did the same.

The Fate of the Nursing Graduates with the Fake Degrees

According to the Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission (NCQAC) statement issued last year, they would immediately be taking non-disciplinary action and rescinding R.N. licenses against those involved in the scheme. NCQAC aims to protect the public's health by regulating the competency and quality of licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, advanced registered nurse practitioners, and nursing technicians.

On February 2023, NCQAC issued the following statement rescinding the licensee of 10 individuals for failing to provide their qualifications:

The Letter written by the NCQAC about the fake degrees

According to attorneys, many of those caught in the fake diploma scandal are immigrants who strongly claimed that they attended classes and completed their nursing training in their home counties before relocating to the U.S.

In addition, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing shared that many of those who bought the fake nursing diplomas had previously practiced in different healthcare fields in various capacities, including nursing assistants, which could explain how so many of them passed the NCLEX.

Many licensed nurses who initially attended the school caught in the are worried about their careers and credibility. These nurses and their employers received letters from the State Board of Nursing (SBONs) to submit all their documentation and licenses for review. For instance, more than 900 nurses in New York were issued letters from SBONs asking them for proof of their credibility.

Nurses with fake diplomas employed in healthcare facilities will likely lose their jobs. Those who treated patients could face professional negligence claims. The patients could argue that the care they received was negligent because the nurse attending to them was not properly licensed. But all this will depend on the patients’ allegations of injury, the unique facts of the case, and the laws of the state in which the suit is brought. 

Employers could face liability issues depending on the unique facts of the case, healthcare facilities, and state laws. Patients treated in these Healthcare facilities could sue for medical malpractice actions or improper hiring practices. All healthcare facilities are responsible for checking and verifying their employee’s credibility and are liable for any they do. 

It is important to note that my person- a patient, a patient's family member, a colleague, or an employer can file an SBON complaint against a nurse or the healthcare facility that hired them. So, it is highly likely that one may not know the identity of their accuser. 

SBON is treating nurses who attended these schools while they were accredited and those who bought the fraudulent diplomas the same way. SBONs sent them all letters and gave them a short time to prove their legitimacy. In other words, they all had a short time to:

Due to this, there have been corners about the due process and whether they can be heard in these cases. 

Many people were worried these nurses wouldn't be criminally charged because of the "Fake Nurse of the Year Sent to Jail" case of 2009. The case involved Betty Lichtenstein, who was investigated by the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and charged with the following:

Three months before this, she was charged with forging prescriptions for painkillers. What's more surprising is that in 2008, she received a Nurse of the Year award hosted by the Connecticut Nursing Association.

What You Do to Avoid Fake Degree Scandal in the Future

Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Department of Education, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued warnings that bogus credentials can compromise your credibility.

As a nursing student hoping to be hired as a registered nurse, you should know how to spot fake degrees to avoid your career dream going down the drain. The best way to do this is by carrying out due diligence before applying to any nursing school. Check for the following:

Check Academic Credentials- this is perhaps one of the best ways to determine the legitimacy of an institution. The U.S. Department of Education sets accreditation standards to ensure schools meet education quality standards. 

Do this even if an institution is well known. Finding information about the accreditation status of an institution is easy. Most institutions are proud of their accreditation and will gladly post it on their websites. According to FTC, an institution is probably a diploma mill if:

Other ways you can locate this information are by:

Contacting the school- various institutions will likely confirm attendance, graduation dates, and certified academic transcripts. 

Talk to one of the Alumni- ask someone who studied there for their certified transcript and the school's accreditation.

Out-of-sequence degrees- genuine degrees are those earned through traditional progression — high school, the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral or other advanced degrees. But for out-of-sequence degrees, one could claim to have a master's degree without a bachelor's or a college degree without a high school diploma. 

So before signing up for any school, check with alumni whether they went through the traditional process before earning their degrees. 

Quickies Degrees- earning a nursing degree takes time. From going through the coursework and earning clinical experience to getting the R.N. licensure, the process could take five years, depending on the degree you want. Institutions that issue degrees for the shortest time or multiple degrees within the same year are a big red flag.

Sound-Alike Names- Some diploma mills would use names that sound like those of well-established and known institutions. If the name of the school you want sounds like one you know but is in a different state, check on it. 

Additionally, take is a red flag when someone claims to have gotten a degree from a country they have never visited. 

Final Words

The aftermath of the Florida fake nursing degree scandal has raised awareness of the fake certifications issued in critical care professions. There is a need for strict background checks to maintain the integrity of the nursing profession and protect patients against quack doctors and nurses. 

Nursing is an honorable profession and must be treated as such. This means every person should do their part in ensuring that those who want to be nurses go through the proper channels to acquire their certifications.

Related Readings:

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