Federal government announces mass withdrawal of fraudulent nursing degree program; 2 residents of Burlington County, NJ charged

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — A massive, coordinated scheme to sell fake and fraudulent nursing credentials was foiled by a joint federal law enforcement operation, Justice Department officials said Wednesday.

As first reported by ABC News, officials said the scheme involved peddling more than $100 million worth of fake nursing diplomas and transcripts over several years — fake credentials that have been sold to help “thousands of people” take “shortcuts” to becoming practicing registered nurses.

Officials said the fake diplomas and transcripts had been sold by what had been accredited schools to aspiring nurses, to help candidates circumvent qualification requirements needed to sit for the board exam National Nursing. Although they still had to take the exam, the fake credentials allowed them to skip vital steps in the competency and licensure process, officials said — and once fired, these individuals were able to find a job in the health care field.

Overall, the conspiracy involved the distribution of more than 7,600 bogus nursing degrees and certificates issued by Florida-based nursing programs, officials said.

“This is probably one of the most brazen schemes I’ve seen. And it shocks the mind,” Omar Perez Aybar, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Inspector’s Office General (HHS-OIG), told ABC News in an exclusive interview.

The sweeping enforcement action spanned five states: Florida, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Delaware, and resulted in more than two dozen wire fraud and conspiracy charges. electronic against 25 individuals.

Among those charged are Stanton Witherspoon and Alfred Sellu of Burlington County, NJ. Officials said Witherspoon was the founder of the Nursing Education Resource Center (NERC), a Delaware limited liability company located in Newport. Sellu was employed by NERC.

“The indictment alleges that Witherspoon, Sellu and (another defendant) solicited and recruited individuals seeking nursing degrees to obtain employment as RNs or LPNs/VNs. It is alleged that these defendants arranged with (Eugene) Sanon, who ran Siena College, and is accused by wire fraud conspiracy information, of creating and distributing false and fraudulent diplomas and transcripts.These false documents indicated that aspiring RN and LPN/VN candidates had completed the nursing program at Siena College in Broward County and completed the courses and clinics necessary to earn RN or LPN/VN credentials. never attended the necessary classes and clinics,” federal officials said.

We “expect our healthcare professionals to be who they say they are. Specifically, when we talk about a nurse’s education and credentials – shorthand is not a word we want to use,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe said. “When we take an injured son or daughter to the emergency room of a hospital, we don’t expect – we really can’t imagine – that the licensed practical nurse or registered nurse who trains our child has taken a shortcut. “

HHS-OIG, the FBI and the Department of Justice worked together on the operation, dubbed “Operation Nightingale,” in honor of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.

Investigators spent weeks sifting through more than 10,000 nursing school records to advance the investigation. “As we started going through them, we noticed that there were no real courses taken by individuals – it was just a money mill,” Aybar said.

Nursing applicants who allegedly participated in the scheme would pay up to $15,000 for the fraudulent credentials, officials said.

The defendants include “owners, operators and employees” of the schools who “prepared and sold false nursing school diplomas and transcripts to nursing applicants, knowing that the applicants would use these false documents for a, present themselves nursing board exams, would earn nursing licenses, and three eventually get nursing jobs at medical facilities, not just in Florida but across the country,” Lapointe said. All three schools have since closed, officials say.Additional defendants charged include “recruiters” to lure potential buyers.

The purported scheme allowed those nursing candidates who allegedly purchased the bogus credentials “to avoid hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of clinical training — countless hours gaining that experience,” Lapointe said. “These people didn’t go through this. That part was completely ignored.”

“For them, it was worth the investment or the risk,” Aybar told ABC News.

For those involved – “the owners of nursing schools, certainly the recruiters and, no doubt, the recipients of transcripts and nursing degrees” – Aybar said: “It was certainly all driven by greed” .

Federal law enforcement officials have underscored the high stakes of the program, saying it potentially puts patient health and safety at risk — and standards of safe nursing cannot be bought — only learned.

“What is troubling about this scheme is the possibility of harm to patients under the questionable care of one of these allegedly fraudulent nurses,” said FBI Miami Acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough. .

In the indictments, federal law enforcement officials alleged that the defendants – some in leadership positions at nursing schools – “solicited and recruited individuals seeking credentials in nursing to gain employment as Registered Nurses (RNs) or Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs/VNs),” then arranged with co-conspirators to “create and distribute credentials and transcripts of false and fraudulent notes” in order to falsely represent that the aspiring nurses had completed the program and had taken the necessary courses to receive a degree, when “in fact, the aspiring nurses had never taken the necessary courses and clinics.”

Aybar said one of the ways officials were alerted to the alleged scheme was when Florida’s state audit process found low pass rates at three nursing schools.

The alleged participants in the scheme backdated the diplomas and transcripts they were selling, to make them appear legitimate, authorities said. Candidates would use these falsified diplomas, transcripts and additional records to obtain licensure in various states – then, once cleared, candidates could then use these fraudulent documents to obtain nursing jobs “with medical providers. involuntary health care across the country,” officials said.

Officials said they had “not learned or uncovered any evidence of patient harm resulting from these people potentially providing patient services” – but it was the potential for that patient harm that was precisely the concern.

Aybar said that’s why, since the investigation began, authorities have worked with state licensing commissions to share as much information as possible, as quickly as they can, so that the respective commissions “can assess the measures to be taken to prevent these people from providing care. »

The action by federal law enforcement comes at a crucial time in the health care industry, where an existing shortage of nurses, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has left many nursing staff scattered and exhausted.

“I’m confident there will be a level of liability that all of these individuals will face,” Aybar said.

Defendants in the alleged scheme, if convicted, face a statutory maximum of 20 years in prison for wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy charges, the DOJ said.

Aybar highlighted the commitment to ethics and principles that nurses make, called “the Nightingale commitment.”

“They pledge to refrain from any deleterious act. They will do everything in their power to enhance and honor the profession. Obviously, these individuals have not done that here,” he said. declared.

“We understand that this conduct has no reflection on the hard work and dedication that (nurses) put to make this profession honorable, and so thank you for that,” Aybar added. I encourage those of you – if you’re in a setting and you have someone who maybe doesn’t practice to the standards that understand that, maybe if you see something, say something .”

Officials said at this point it is up to state licensing boards to push forward with actions against people within their jurisdiction – some of whom are practicing nurses ‘somewhere in the United States, possibly currently’ , said Lapointe.

“We know who they are,” Lapointe said.

“Not only is this a public safety issue, but it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who have done the hard clinical and course work required to obtain licenses and jobs,” Lapointe said. “And of course erodes the age-old trust we’ve built with our nation’s nurses.”

ABC News’ Luke Barr contributed to this report.

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