DOJ charges 25 in alleged scheme that sold thousands of fake degrees to aspiring nurses

The Department of Justice has announced charges against 25 individuals for allegedly conducting a scheme that illegally funneled over 7,600 fraudulent nursing degree diplomas from three now-closed Florida schools to aspiring nurses across the country.

The alleged scheme involved individuals who owned or managed Siena College, Palm Beach School of Nursing and Sacred Heart International Institute creating and distributing fake diplomas and transcripts to co-conspirators outside of Florida, DOJ said Wednesday in a release announcing the charges.

Those documents would allow an individual to sit for the national nursing board exam without completing the coursework and clinicals required of a nurse in training. The DOJ said that thousands of fraudulent documents were purchased and used to obtain licenses and jobs with healthcare providers across various states as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses.

“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 healthcare roles treating patients,” acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough, FBI Miami, said in a Wednesday release. “Were it not for the diligence and hard work of the investigators on this case, the extent of this fraud may not have been discovered.”

The 25 individuals charged by the DOJ reside in Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas, according to unsealed indictments and other documents released Wednesday.

Each of the 26 defendants faces up to 20 years in prison for charges of conspiring to commit and committing wire fraud. One defendant, Johanah Napoleon, has previously been charged and pled guilty to conspiring to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud, and committing wire fraud.

Law enforcement told ABC News that nursing candidates would purchase the fake diplomas for as much as $15,000. DOJ said its agents reviewed more than 10,000 records as part of the so-called “Operation Nightingale” investigation, per ABC, and were tipped off when state audits found low passing rates for the three schools.

DOJ told ABC that it has not found evidence of patient harm related to nurses practicing with the fraudulent diplomas, but that it has shared information with state licensing boards which will have the final say in potential action against those individuals.

“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,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe, said in a release. “A fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our healthcare system.”

In an email comment, David Schumacher, former deputy chief of the Health Care Fraud Unit for the U.S. Attorney's Office (Boston) and currently co-chair of the Fraud & Abuse Practice at Hooper Lundy, described the scope of the fraud scheme as "astonishing."

Though patients treated by the fraudulent nurses are "the obvious victims," hospitals and health systems that employed who they believed to be qualified caregivers will be left to handle much of the fallout. 

"Compliance officers will need to determine if any of their employer’s nurses were involved with this scheme and take appropriate action—and do so before the government and commercial payers ask questions," Schumacher said. "Moreover, if there are thousands of nurses out there who obtained their licenses under false pretenses, there could be years of collateral litigation including additional indictments, nursing board licensure actions and potential lawsuits from their employers and families. What a mess.”