3 Florida nurses vow to fight fraudulent degree charges, attorney says

Three nurses who say they legitimately earned their nursing degrees from one of the three now-shuttered Florida schools involved in Operation Nightingale are fighting to keep their licenses, according to their attorney.

All three nurses still have their licenses, which will remain valid pending the outcome of the investigation.

Twenty-five people were charged in Operation Nightingale in early 2023, and each faces up to 20 years in prison. 

Officials allege that three nursing schools — Siena College in Lauderhill, Palm Beach School of Nursing in West Palm Beach and Sacred Heart International Institute in Boca Raton — sold more than 7,600 fraudulent diplomas and transcripts — at between $10,000 and $15,000 each — to aspiring nurses. 

Chad Yarbrough, FBI special agent in charge, called the scheme "disturbing" in a Jan. 27 New York Times report. "There are over 7,600 people around the country with fraudulent nursing credentials who are potentially in critical healthcare roles treating patients," he said.

With transcripts in hand, these students were able to sit for National Council Licensure Examination without completing required coursework. About 37 percent of individuals who bought fake documents passed the test, obtained their nursing licenses and got jobs in healthcare facilities across the United States. Many states are trying to root out individuals identified by the three schools as having purchased the fake documents.

The attorney for the three nurses who say they are wrongly accused, Jamaal Jones of Miami-based Jones Health Law,said all nurses flagged by the closed schools as being involved with the fraud have been given the opportunity to relinquish their licenses in lieu of further penalty. "The FBI has already stated that it won't pursue any criminal charges" for nurses who bought their transcripts, he said. "I would think many will relinquish their licenses because they know what they did."

However, Mr. Jones said his three clients are going to fight for their nursing livelihood because they are innocent.

"The allegations against them are baseless," he said. "Complaints were filed against them without any documentation to support the allegations made by criminals who have shown they are untrustworthy." 

The defendants' cases

Mr. Jones' clients — two registered nurses and one licensed practical nurse — received notices of complaint from the FBI alleging they obtained "a licensure through fraud or error" and accused them of "deceptive and fraudulent representation." The three nurses declined to speak with Becker's directly but gave permission for Mr. Jones to speak on their behalf.

All three nurses were born outside the U.S., and Mr. Jones said he believes the "perpetrators of the crime are preying on these individuals who were not born in the U.S." English is a second language for two of them; the third has been living and working as a nurse in New York for more than a decade, and English is his first language.

Client 1 is from Nigeria and is a practicing licensed practical nurse. Mr. Jones said she attended Sacred Heart International Institute remotely and earned a diploma, which has been provided to the Florida Board of Nursing.

"She did not buy her transcript," Mr. Jones said, adding Client 1 completed all her coursework and has been "lumped in with people who bought their transcripts. When they were asked to give the names of people who bought transcripts, they basically just served up names."

When pressed, Mr. Jones said the schools gave the names of anyone who attended during the period of time that is being investigated. Officials are basing their complaints, he said, on the "affidavits of the main perpetrators of the crime … without doing any independent research." 

Client 2 is from Cuba. She was a physician in her native country and wanted to be a nurse in the U.S. She attended required classes from a licensed, but non-accredited, nursing school in Florida and decided to transfer all her credits to Siena College — one of the three schools involved in the scheme — which was accredited.

Mr. Jones said Siena College collected a credit transfer fee after informing Client 2 her transferred transcript showed she had already taken the required classes and earned enough credits to become a registered nurse. 

"She took and passed all of the courses that she needed. She was not looking to pay for a transcript. In no way was she under the premise that she would pay to play. She did not pay anyone in exchange for the grades she earned," Mr. Jones said. "It's not unusual to transfer from one institution to another. She completed all the required coursework."

He said he understands why the FBI is looking to track down people who bought "bogus transcripts stating that they completed coursework that they didn't. But that is a very different situation from my client, who did complete the coursework and went through the proper channels to have her credits transferred to Siena College."  

Client 3 is a New York nurse who is originally from Trinidad. He obtained his diploma from the Palm Beach School of Nursing and holds licenses in New York and Florida. "I worked hard and missed family and friends' events while attending school. I spent a lot of money on hotels, cars and tuition. There were many sleepless nights spent studying and writing papers. I followed the curriculum set by the school and abided by their rules. I attended every class and never missed a day. I even did research to make sure school was accredited before attending. After all of that hard work I passed the NCLEX," Client 3 said. "I worked hard for all these years especially during COVID on the frontlines and put myself and family in danger while other professionals worked from home. I won awards and was recognized both by institutions. I also furthered my training and skills to be able to serve my patients better."

After receiving the FBI complaint, he lost two of his four nursing jobs, including a lucrative travel nurse gig.

"I feel like this is all a nightmare. I still think one day they will say, "oh, it was a mistake,'" said Client 3, who has been a practicing nurse for more than a decade. "I have never and would never associate myself with fraudulent activities that would bring shame to family and myself." 
Becker's tried to reach all three schools for comment. Phone numbers are no longer in service.

"Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and coursework required to obtain their professional licenses and employment," Markenzy Lapointe, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said in a Feb. 2 Newsweek report. "A fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our healthcare system."

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