MIAMI — Twenty-five people have been charged in a wire fraud scheme that created an illegal licensing and employment shortcut for aspiring nurses at three now-closed schools, including the Palm Beach School of Nursing, federal prosecutors said Wednesday afternoon.
Defendants sold fraudulent nursing degree diplomas and transcripts obtained from accredited Florida-based nursing schools to individuals seeking licenses and jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses, according to three recently unsealed indictments returned by a South Florida federal grand jury on Jan. 12 and information filed by federal prosecutors.
The other schools named are the Sacred Heart Institute in Fort Lauderdale in Sienna College of Health in Lauderhill in the investigation dubbed "Operation Nightingale" after legendary nurse Florence Nightingale.
The Palm Beach County school, which operated on 2695 N. Military Trail in West Palm Beach, offered an Associate in Science degree. The school was licensed with the Florida Board of Nursing but it was terminated in 2017 due to low passing rates on the state certification exam. When it was dissolved in 2020, the address w 1110 Sixth Ave. S. in Lake Worth Beach.
Johanah Napoleon, the school's president, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, as well as wire fraud in 2022. She was not named in the indictment.
“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," U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe said in Miami, adding that "a fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system."
Qualified purchasers were allowed 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. Exams were taken in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Texas.
More than 7,600 fake nursing diplomas were issued by the three nursing schools since 2016 at $15,000 each, netting them more than $114 million.
Each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison. They were charged with conspiring to and committing wire fraud, prosecutors said.
"Health care fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money," acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough, FBI Miami, said. “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."
Investigators said about a third of the people actually are practicing medicine.
"The most important thing for us was to make sure, to the extent we’re talking about health care, is that we stop the bleeding," Lapointe said. "What do we learn when somebody gets injured? Stop the bleeding. The bleeding here is to stop those schools from being able to put more fraudulent diplomas out in the public sphere."
There are two categories of defendants. Recruiters would bring "students" from other states to get the "shortcut" documents from the South Florida school. The other group included owners, operators and employees of nursing schools to fake diplomas and transcripts.
In 2021, an undercover FBI employee met with Fort Lauderdale businessman Geralda Adrien at her Fort Lauderdale office. She said a normal nursing school program lasts 22 months and can equate to four years at a large university.
Adrien offered the undercover employee a degree from the Palm Beach School of Nursing and training for a licensing exam in New York at a cost of $16,000, according to an FBI affidavit.
Fourteen of those charged are linked to the Palm Beach County school.
Prosecutors alleged recruiters arranged with Palm Beach School of Nursing’s owner, Napoleon, and school employees Gail Russ, Cheryl Stanley, Krystal Lopez and Ricky Riley to create and distribute false and fraudulent diplomas and transcripts. The other 10 charged were listed as recruiters, including seven from New Jersey or New York.
No students were named in the indictments.