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Fraudulent nursing diploma scheme leads to federal charges against 25 in South Florida

More than two dozen individuals have been charged in the Southern District of Florida for their alleged participation in a wire fraud scheme that created an illegal licensing and employment shortcut for aspiring nurses.

A report from ABC News said officials reported the scheme involved peddling more than $100 million worth of bogus nursing diplomas and transcripts over the course of several years -- fake credentials that were sold to help "thousands of people" take "shortcuts" toward becoming licensed, practicing nurses.

The ABC report said officials told them that nursing candidates who allegedly participated in the scheme would pay as much as $15,000 for the fraudulent diplomas.

According to three recently unsealed indictments returned by a South Florida federal grand jury and two informations filed by federal prosecutors, defendants engaged in a scheme to sell fraudulent nursing degree diplomas and transcripts obtained from accredited Florida-based nursing schools to individuals seeking licenses and jobs as registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical/vocational nurses (LPN/VNs).

The bogus diplomas and transcripts qualified purchasers to sit for the national nursing board exam and, after passing it, to obtain licenses and jobs in various states as RNs and LPN/VNs.

The overall scheme involved the distribution of more than 7,600 fake nursing diplomas issued by three South Florida-based nursing schools: Siena College in Broward County, Fla., Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County, Fla., and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County. These schools are now closed.

Each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison.

The ABC News report quoted U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe and other officials that at this point it is up to the state licensing boards to push forward with action against those individuals under their purview.

Some of those diploma recipients have been practicing nursing "somewhere in the United States, perhaps currently," Lapointe said. “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." Lapointe added that “a fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system.”

Crimes such as these unfortunately continue to spring up, especially in this area.

“Health care fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money, “said acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough, FBI Miami. “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. 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 charges speak to the purpose of a nursing license which is to protect the public from harm by setting minimum qualifications and competencies.

“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 Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG). “In coordination with our law enforcement partners, HHS-OIG continues to aggressively investigate bad actors who so brazenly disregard the well-being of others in order to enrich themselves fraudulently.”

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