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Thousands of practicing nurses in the U.S. could potentially be working with bogus academic credentials after federal officials uncovered an alleged scheme at three South Florida nursing schools. The Department of Justice said Wednesday that the schools, now closed, allegedly issued more than 7,600 fake and unearned nursing diplomas.
The schools involved in the alleged scheme include Siena College, Palm Beach School of Nursing and Sacred Heart International Institute. The Justice Department has charged more than two dozen people for their alleged involvement, saying they “engaged in a scheme to sell fraudulent nursing degree diplomas and transcripts obtained from accredited Florida-based nursing schools.” Each of those defendants now faces up to 20 years in prison.
According to charging documents, many of those involved in the alleged scheme are from out-of-state, including people from New York and New Jersey. The nurses with the fake degrees went on to work in various settings, including for homebound children, assisted living facilities and veteran affairs, and in several states, documents show, including Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Georgia, Maryland and Texas.
The alleged schemes took place between 2016 and 2021.
Those who got the fake diplomas were able to take the national nursing board exam and then obtain licenses and jobs in “various states” as registered nurses (RNs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and vocational nurses (VNs),” the DOJ said.
Markenzy Lapointe, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said a scheme such as this “erodes public trust in our health care system.”
“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 said.
Among those charged are Burlington County, New Jersey, residents Stanton Witherspoon and Alfred Sellu and Westchester County, New York, resident Rene Bernadel. Prosecutors said the three “solicited and recruited” people seeking nursing credentials and then worked with Eunide Sanon of Siena College “to create and distribute false and fraudulent diplomas and transcripts” that were sold to “thousands” of nursing applications. Those papers incorrectly stated that the aspiring nurses had attended the Broward County nursing program and completed their courses and clinicals, prosecutors allege.
The other schools named allegedly did the same.
American Nurses Association President Jennifer Mensik Kennedy said Thursday that the “coordinated conspiracy” is “disturbing” and “deeply unsettling.”
“Nursing is without a doubt a highly specialized and ethical profession requiring rigorous and life-long education and training to acquire unmatched clinical expertise. You don’t achieve this overnight,” she said. “There are no shortcuts in nursing – our patients and clients depend on us. It is both a demanding and rewarding profession that requires individuals to be adaptive to the evolving and complex health care landscape to ensure the delivery of safe and quality patient care.”
The actions of those involved, including the schools that were once accredited, are “simply deplorable,” she said.
“This undermines everything the nursing profession represents and stands for and is in direct opposition to the Code of Ethics for Nurses,” she said. “Furthermore, these unlawful and unethical acts disparage the reputation of actual nurses everywhere who have rightfully earned the title of the ‘Most Trusted and Ethical Professionals’ through their education, hard work, dedication and time.”