Federal indictment over fake Florida nursing diplomas leaves 26 Delaware licenses invalid

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.

In Delaware, a combined 26 active registered nurse and licensed nurse practitioner licenses were annulled or voided through these findings, according to the Department of State. Spokesman Rony Baltazar-Lopez said there are 35 more nurses on the FBI list who have expired Delaware licenses.

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.

Delaware licenses impacted; local business named

One of the people named in the federal indictment is Stanton Witherspoon of Burlington County, New Jersey, who was the founder and president of Nursing Education Resource Center, a Delaware limited liability company, located at 102 Larch Ave., Suite 203, in Newport.

The indictment claims Witherspoon entered into an agreement with another person in late 2018 to become 50% owner of Siena Education Center LLC and Siena College.

News of the indictment resulted in the Delaware Nurses Association issuing a statement Thursday acknowledging that Delaware has been named in filings and that the organization suspects numerous of these potential licensees are affiliated with the state. The statement added that "defendants may have obtained a license or have been potentially practicing in Delaware."

“We are deeply unsettled by this egregious act," Delaware Nurses Association President Stephanie McClellan said in the 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. This act is not a representation of our code of ethics and standards of practice nor our commitment to patients and our community."

Public meeting records from the Delaware Division of Professional Regulation identify that, in a closed session of the Delaware Board of Nursing in November 2022, 26 licensees were sent annulment letters. The letters, according to Baltazar-Lopez, make the licenses void "as it never should have existed," he said in a written statement Thursday.

The state is "not able to share the names" of the nurses found with these licenses until they have all been given the opportunity to have hearings, he said. In three cases that have already been heard, Baltazar-Lopez said it was "determined the nurses committed fraud."

More hearings are scheduled for February and March, he said.

There is no concern that this issue is more widespread than what has already been identified, according to Baltazar-Lopez, who added that in 2018, a more secure process was adopted to "verify applicants for licensure by exam were graduates of a board-approved nursing program."

Additionally, division staff are thoroughly reviewing all applications and flagging any in question to be brought before the board for further review.

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 generally 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

  • 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 November 2018 to October 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 November 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: Delaware nursing licenses voided after indictment over fake diplomas