Cracking Down on Fraud: South Florida Nursing Diploma Scandal Takes a New Turn
A recent scandal has unfolded in South Florida, involving the sale of counterfeit nursing diplomas and resulting in a significant development. Five individuals associated with the Palm Beach School of Nursing and other businesses have chosen to enter plea deals instead of going to trial. This follows a crackdown on nursing school operators in the region, which began four years ago based on a tip. The defendants have admitted to a conspiracy to commit wire fraud, with allegations stating that they sold fake nursing degrees to thousands of students for large sums of money, ranging from $10,000 to $17,000 per diploma. What makes this particularly alarming is that these degrees were obtained without fulfilling the necessary training, such as clinical work, national exams, and certification.
The accused institutions provided a dishonest “shortcut” for students, allowing them to bypass the usual two-year nursing program. Instead, they were solely prepared for licensing exams, which enabled them to practice nursing in various states, including Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Texas. It is worth noting that the network of fraudulent nursing school operators primarily operated in South Florida. The consequences of this scheme extend far beyond financial gains, as the affected students now face the potential revocation of their nursing licenses.
Among the individuals who pleaded guilty are Krystal Lopez, the director of finance at the Palm Beach School of Nursing, and her brother Damian Lopez, who played a role in recruiting students and providing educational services for nursing exams. Additionally, three other defendants—Yelva Saint Preux, Francois Legagneur, and Reynoso Seide—based in the Northeast, offered licensing preparation services for students with counterfeit degrees from the Palm Beach School of Nursing and other implicated institutions.
The defendants could face a maximum of 20 years in prison; however, their sentencing hearings, scheduled for the summer, are expected to result in lesser terms due to their acceptance of responsibility. The severity of their punishment will also be influenced by the amount of money each individual profited from the nursing school scam.
The magnitude of this scandal is astonishing, with an estimated 7,600 students having collectively paid $114 million for fraudulent nursing degrees between 2016 and 2021. Approximately 2,400 of these students managed to pass their licensing exams, primarily in New York, where there are no restrictions on the number of attempts allowed. As a result, these individuals acquired nursing certifications that enable them to practice in multiple states, including Florida.
A significant portion of the affected students belong to South Florida’s Haitian-American community. Some of them held legitimate LPN licenses and aspired to become registered nurses, while others were recruited from out-of-state locations to participate in these fraudulent nursing programs. Unfortunately, all those who purchased these fake degrees now face the possibility of having their nursing licenses revoked.
The investigation, known as “Operation Nightingale,” was initiated in 2019 following a tip from Maryland. The FBI conducted an undercover operation targeting Geralda Adrien and Woosvelt Predestin, two businesspeople from Fort Lauderdale. Both individuals pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to mail and wire fraud. They cooperated with authorities and were sentenced to over two years and three months in prison in 2022.
The investigation also implicated other key figures, including Johanah Napoleon, the president of the Palm Beach School of Nursing, who pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge and is currently awaiting sentencing. Two additional plea deals were reached this spring, involving Charles Etienne, the president of Sacred Heart International Institute, and Eunide Sanon, the owner of Siena College of Health. Both pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to mail and wire fraud.
Although Etienne and Sanon potentially face a 20-year prison sentence, their early acceptance of responsibility is likely to result in reduced terms. Additionally, as part of their sentencing, they will be required to turn over significant amounts of money to the U.S. government. Sanon must relinquish approximately $1.3 million, while Etienne must surrender about $150,000.
The impact of this scandal goes beyond financial losses. It has caused significant damage to the credibility of the nursing profession and has raised concerns about the integrity of educational institutions. The affected students, who put their trust in these fraudulent programs, now face uncertain futures as their nursing licenses hang in the balance. The revocation of their licenses could have far-reaching consequences for their careers and livelihoods.
This case serves as a reminder of the importance of conducting thorough background checks on educational institutions and verifying the legitimacy of their accreditation. It also highlights the need for robust oversight and regulation of the nursing education sector to prevent similar scams in the future.
As the legal proceedings continue, it is hoped that justice will be served, and appropriate measures will be taken to ensure the protection of students and the integrity of the nursing profession.