January 26, 2023

For-Profit College Owners Charged for Selling Fake Nursing Diplomas

For-Profit College Owners Charged for Selling Fake Nursing Diplomas

Federal prosecutors in Miami announced Wednesday that they had charged 25 people — including the owners of South Florida for-profit colleges — with selling fraudulent nursing degree diplomas and transcripts to people seeking licenses and jobs as nurses. Collectively, the defendants charged in federal documents facilitated the distribution of more than 7,600 fake nursing diplomas issued by three South Florida-based nursing schools: Siena College and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County and Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County.

The fake diplomas and transcripts allowed willing buyers to sit for the national nursing board exam and, if they passed it, to qualify for licenses and jobs in various states as registered nurses and practical/vocational nurses. At least some of the fraudulent packages including some training to prepare for the nursing exam.

The crooked schools and their employees obtained more than $100 million for selling the fake degrees, according to federal investigators.

All three of the schools were approved by school accrediting agencies and the state of Florida and therefore were eligible for taxpayer funded federal student grants and loans to enroll and teach aspiring nurses. All three schools are now closed, but the corrupt behavior by their owners and employees not only abused federal financial aid dollars; it has also endangered the public. As FBI Miami acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough said in a Justice Department press release, “What is disturbing about this investigation is that there are over 7,600 people around the country with fraudulent nursing credentials who are potentially in critical health care roles treating patients.”

The defendants are charged with wire fraud and conspiracy. They each face up to 20 years in prison.

The federal charging documents allege, as to Palm Beach School of Nursing, that the school’s owner Johanah Napoleon conspired with her employees and with recruiters in Florida, New York, and New Jersey to sell fake degrees and transcripts to people who never attended the school. Napoleon has already pled guilty in case, admitting last year to conspiring to commit health care fraud and wire fraud.

An FBI affidavit alleged that in 2021, an undercover FBI employee met with Geralda Adrien, a recruiter for Palm Beach School of Nursing. Adrien allegedly told the undercover that a nursing program usually lasts 22 months, but that for $16,000 they could obtain a diploma and preparation for the license exam.

Palm Beach School of Nursing lost its license with the Florida Board of Nursing in 2017 due to low exam passage rates.

As to Sacred Heart, prosecutors allege that that school’s owner, Charles Etienne, worked with recruiters in Florida, Texas, and New York to sell fake degrees.

And the charging documents state that Siena College’s manager, Eugene Sanon, worked with recruiters based in New York and New Jersey to sell fraudulent degrees from that school to non-students.

None of the bogus students were charged in the documents released Wednesday.

The Justice Department release says the case “is being prosecuted in conjunction with a related criminal matter in the Eastern District of Maryland.”

A federal investigator told ABC News that authorities suspected the crimes when the Florida state auditing process found poor passing rates at the three nursing schools.

But many current Florida schools still have low passage rates. As we have reported, Florida for years has been at or near the bottom in state rankings for passage of the NCLEX nursing exam. In the most recent quarterly accounting, released last week, Florida, which had by far the largest number of exam takers with 3,658, had only a 55 percent pass rate — worse than every state except Wyoming, where just six people took the exam and three of them passed.

Such fraud in the system may persist at some current Florida schools and help explain the state’s low standing in the rankings.  But aggressive recruiting and enrollment and poor quality instruction at some institutions, coupled with lax oversight by regulators, also are likely contributors — leading to flunked exams and crushed dreams for students who honestly attend Florida nursing schools. (Passage rates might be even lower if some schools didn’t engage in efforts to drive students out of their nursing programs late in their studies, with the apparent aim of artificially reducing the number of flunks.)

At this morning’s meeting of the Florida Commission on Independent Education, which along with the state board of nursing oversees nursing schools in the state, executive director Meredith Pelton said “the Commission is aware” of the federal charges.

UPDATE 02-10-23:

At a meeting this morning the Florida Commission on Independent Education took emergency action to temporarily suspend operations at seven Florida health careers schools connected to individuals charged in the nursing fraud case. Six of the schools — Carleen Health Institute of South Florida, Med-Life Institute, Myrielle School of Nursing, Nursing Bridges Institute, Palm Beach International College, and Techni-Pro Institute —  did not appear at the hearing to contest the action, but the seventh, Suncoast College of Health in Bradenton, did appear and said the current owner was not implicated. The Commission suspended the school anyway.