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‘Erodes Public Trust In Our Health Care System’: Federal Government Busts Fake Nursing Diploma Ring That Made $114M In Five Years

Federal officials conducted a sting and busted 25 suspected scammers who participated in a massive wire fraud scheme where they sold thousands of fake nursing degrees to individuals looking to purchase diplomas — without actually completing a proper nursing program.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe held a news conference to expose the crime, sharing that over 7,600 fraudulent nursing degrees from three different Florida-based nursing schools were sold, NPR reports.

According to the Justice Department, defendants Stanton Witherspoon and Alfred Sellu, both of Burlington County, New Jersey, and Rene Bernadel of Westchester County, New York, “solicited and recruited” people seeking nursing credentials, according to CBS News. Reports also indicate the trio coordinated with Eunide Sanon of Siena College “to create and distribute false and fraudulent diplomas and transcripts.”

U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe Holds Press Conference on nursing diploma fraud scheme
U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe holds press conference on nursing diploma fraud scheme. (Photo: YouTube screenshot/U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida)

“Witherspoon, Sellu, and Bernadel solicited and recruited individuals who sought nursing credentials to gain employment as an RN or LPN/VN,” the DOJ alleges, adding the indictment alleges “these defendants arranged with Sanon, who managed Siena College and is charged by information with wire fraud conspiracy, to create and distribute false and fraudulent diplomas and transcripts.”

The agency said in charging documents that more than a dozen individuals face charges of conspiring to commit and committing wire fraud.

Reportedly a number of individuals from Florida’s Haitian population provided employers and accreditation organizations with the fabricated paperwork to obtain jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses and also to get the licenses for those positions issued to them.

Those who paid for the diplomas and/or transcripts were able to use them as they took the national nursing board exam in multiple states, including Florida, New York, New Jersey and Texas, without attending the almost two-year nursing program required, as well as skipping out on required clinical work.

There were also “instructors” in the operation that would coach those taking part on how to take and pass the licensing and certification exams for a fee.

Defendants named in the federal indictment face up to 20 years each in prison.

“Our healthcare professionals play an important role in our public health system. We, therefore, expect our healthcare professionals to be who they claim they are. Specifically, when we talk about a nurse’s education and credentials, shortcut is not a word we want to use,” Lapointe said.

In an earlier statement released by the Department of Justice, he addressed how dangerous schemes like this are to public trust in the medical profession, saying, “Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and course work required to obtain their professional licenses and employment. A fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system.”

According to the Miami Herald, court records allege the network of imposter nursing school operators was centered out of South Florida and charged students $10,000 for a licensed practical nurse degree and $17,000 for a registered nurse diploma.

Court documents show between 2016 and 2021, individuals paid $114 million for phony nursing degrees.

About a third of those who purchased the phony degrees actually passed the licensing exams in their state. New York had the largest number of those who passed because of the law that allows people to take the exam as many times as they can until they pass. Also, nurses who get certified in the Empire State are able to practice in other states, including Florida.

These about 2,400 individuals will not be charged criminally but are in jeopardy of losing their certification. A list of all who bought the counterfeit diplomas has been circulated to nursing boards in every state in the country and their boards, Chad Yarbrough, the FBI’s acting special agent in charge in Miami said.

In Georgia, WSB-TV reports, 22 practicing nurses, who were a part of the scam, were sent letters on Tuesday, Jan. 17 by the Georgia Board of Nursing. The letters asked them to voluntarily surrender their nursing licenses within 30 days. No one has given up their fake accreditation.

Omar Perez Aybar, Special Agent in Charge of Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General in Miami, dubbed the scam an “affront to Florence Nightingale,” the founder of modern nursing, but noted despite unqualified people working in this capacity, no patients were caused any harm.

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