Florida Nursing School Fake Diploma Trial Underway With Star Witness in Place

Florida nursing schools sold 7,600 fake diplomas. Now, a federal trial could send three defendants to prison with the help of a key witness.
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Published on December 11, 2023
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  • The Palm Beach School of Nursing sold fake diplomas, according to prosecutors.
  • The defendants are accused of participating in a scheme that raised $114 million through the sale of bogus nursing credentials.
  • A key witness who has pleaded guilty for her role in the nursing degree scheme will testify in the trial.

More than 7,500 Florida nursing students at the now-defunct Palm Beach School of Nursing signed up for fake nursing school diplomas, according to officials. After a federal investigation uncovered the fraud, a trial against top school leaders is underway in Fort Lauderdale.

A star witness for the prosecution — school owner Johanah Napoleon, who has pleaded guilty to participating in the scheme — is purportedly set to testify against the defendants.

According to federal prosecutors, the defendants, all linked to the Palm Beach School of Nursing, participated in a scheme to sell bogus academic credentials so that individuals could apply for a nursing license without completing required clinical instruction and coursework.

"These defendants perpetrated a fraud on so many people in order to make money," Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Clark said in a statement.

Florida Nursing Schools Fake Diploma Scandals: A Background

News accusing Florida nursing schools of issuing fake diplomas first broke in January. Led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Department of Justice, the investigation uncovered efforts to sell fraudulent nursing diplomas and transcripts.

In total, 7,600 fake diplomas were sold, allowing individuals to apply for a nursing license without meeting the academic and clinical requirements.

The federal investigation charged 25 individuals with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. By selling fake credentials for up to $15,000 apiece, the scheme allegedly netted $114 million, according to officials.

"The alleged selling and purchasing of nursing diplomas and transcripts to willing but unqualified individuals is a crime that potentially endangers the health and safety of patients and insults the honorable profession of nursing," said Special Agent in Charge Omar Pérez Aybar of HHS-OIG.

Those charged include owners, recruiters, and staff members at three formerly accredited and affiliated schools: Siena College of Health, Sacred Heart International Institute, and Palm Beach School of Nursing.

Palm Beach School of Nursing: How the Scandal Unfolded

The Florida Board of Nursing first revoked the license of the Palm Beach School of Nursing in 2017 due to low scores on nurse licensing exams. But the for-profit school continued to operate illegally for years, according to reports.

As part of the federal investigation, Napoleon pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud. In July, Napoleon was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay roughly $3.5 million in penalties.

Now, however, Napoleon is the star witness in the Fort Lauderdale trial against three defendants accused of recruiting students for a fake diploma scheme at Palm Beach School of Nursing.

Former director of student services Gail Russ, Cassandre Jean, and Vilaire Duroseau face charges in the federal trial, which began in late November. Prosecutor Clark described Russ as Napoleon's "right-hand woman."

"Gail Russ is the hub of the activity," Clark told the jury. "Without Gail Russ, there is no transcript. Without Gail Russ, there is no diploma. Without Gail Russ, you have nothing.”

Defense attorney Omar Malone, representing Jean, described the prosecution's witnesses as "convicted fraudsters," warning, "They are going to take the witness stand and lie to you like they've never lied before."

As the trial continues, federal prosecutors anticipate more arrests connected to the Florida nursing school's fake diplomas case.

Fake Nursing School Diploma Scandals: A National Issue

Fake nursing diploma scandals not only affect Florida; they are a national issue. As part of the investigation, law enforcement executed search warrants in Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Texas, in addition to Florida.

Around one-third of the individuals who purchased fraudulent documents passed licensing exams and received registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN) credentials. These nurses primarily pursued licenses in New York, according to officials, which gave them the ability to practice in multiple other states.

State nursing boards have stepped in to strip nurses of their certifications after the FBI provided details on the scheme. Federal authorities say they will not charge the individuals who purchased fake diplomas. Investigators found no evidence that the individuals who received nursing licenses fraudulently harmed patients, according to HHS-OIG.

As of September, Operation Nightingale has resulted in 20 guilty pleas and convictions. Each defendant in the ongoing Fort Lauderdale trial faces up to 20 years in prison.