Fake nurses, fake diplomas: authorities are looking for unqualified health professionals

In spring 2019, a curious tip landed at the FBI’s Baltimore field office. An informant paid about $17,000 for a diploma from a Florida nursing school in nearby Laurel, Md., and a fake transcript for the nursing licensure exam along with teaching — without having to take courses — to receive clinical training.

That tip led to an ongoing search for fake nurses in all 50 states, DC, Canada and the Caribbean. It resulted in The case of 25 people Continued investigation into wire fraud allegations and additional schools offering similar fraudulent arrangements. Ten people reached plea deals with prosecutors.

About 2,800 people who bought certificates without attending three unaccredited schools passed the National Board licensing exam and may have used that shortcut to get a job or better job in the health care industry, said Fernando Porras, special agent in charge of Miami. Office of the Comptroller General of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Those names are forwarded to the 56 state boards of nursing — some states have more than one board — to find people with fraudulent credentials, Porras said.

To date, Porras and the National Council of Nursing have not reported any injuries to patients caused by an unqualified nurse.

“There are a lot of safeguards in the program,” he said, explaining that registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and others can take jobs in a variety of health care settings beyond hospitals.

“They get probation,” Porras said. “Once they see that the nurse can’t perform a simple medical task, they should leave.”

Still, Porras said, having nurses who don’t even know how to insert an IV line or calculate a dose “affects everyone,” including the law enforcement agents leading the investigation. “Every family member. Every agent has someone who could be treated in the hospital.

The outbreak delayed the investigation after the initial tip and plea agreement, but the investigation will resume in 2021. The plan, which received widespread media attention across the United States, was concentrated in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. . Dawn Capel, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Boards of Nursing, said in an emailed statement that not every state has had nurses with fraudulent credentials. She said that the states involved in the case are still working on identifying unqualified nurses.

In January, federal authorities announced the indictment of 25 recruiters and school officials at Siena College in Broward County for distributing more than 7,600 fake diplomas. Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County, Fla.; and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County.

The schools that are now closed were once legitimate nursing schools, but lost their accreditation because their students were less likely to pass the licensing exam, Porras said.

The investigation was named “Operation Nightingale” after Florence Nightingale, the English nurse who is said to be the founder of modern nursing.

Defendants face up to 20 years in prison. So far, nurses who have purchased diplomas have not been targeted for criminal prosecution, Porras said, adding that authorities are focused on prosecuting those who ran the scheme and finding unqualified nurses. He said that disciplinary action can be taken against students in future.

From 2016 to 2021, a network of recruiters in Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas entered the campuses of the three Florida schools, allowing people to work for up to $17,000 in fees — producing fake diplomas and transcripts, the lawsuit alleges. According to court documents and Porras, sit for the nursing license exam. The employers also coached students to pass national exams. About 37 percent were successful, Porras said.

According to the court documents, each recruiting network generally sent students to the same school. In the Siena College network, one of the recruits, Stanton Witherspoon of Burlington County, NJ, also owned half of the school. The alleged participants face wire fraud charges for their units in the scheme.

Witherspoon’s attorney did not respond to an email seeking comment.

J. Samantha Vacchiana Russ, attorney for Gail Russ, named in the indictment against the Palm Beach School of Nursing registrar, is innocent and looks forward to her day in court.

Tamal Kudman, a lawyer for Charles Etienne, who is named in the indictment against him as Sacred Heart’s president, declined to comment.

According to the Miami Herald, Etienne is one of 10 people who reached plea deals with prosecutors in 2019, including two who cooperated with the investigation after taking plea deals. Five men entered their guilty pleas in federal court in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday.

They worked for Palm Beach Nursing School or an outfit that provided licensing preparation services for students from prestigious nursing schools.

Porras said the investigation is continuing to determine whether additional schools were involved in similar schemes.

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