The former owner of a South Florida nursing school at the heart of a federal investigation into a multi-state fraud scheme awarding at least 7600 fake diplomas will have to serve nearly 2 years and repay millions.
US District Judge Rodney Smith of the Southern District of Florida in Fort Lauderdale recently sentenced Johanah Napoleon, former president of the Palm Beach School of Nursing, to 21 months in prison, according to the Miami Herald . The judge also ordered Napoleon to pay about $3.5 million. She already paid $2.6 million of it, the Herald reports.
The sentence is “indicative of the seriousness of this crime,” shared Willa Fuller, BSN, RN, executive director of the Florida Nurses Association (FNA). “Hopefully, this decision will deter potential perpetrators in the future,” Fuller said in an email to Medscape Medical News.
Napoleon was charged in 2021 along with two owners of nursing schools in Maryland and Virginia who worked with her. All pled guilty to selling fake degrees for $6000-$18000. The Florida Board of Nursing had previously shut down the Palm Beach school in 2017 as a result of its students’ low passing rate on the national licensing exam.
A tip related to the Maryland case led to federal charges in January against 25 owners, operators, and employees of the Palm Beach School of Nursing and two other Florida nursing schools for selling thousands of fake nursing degrees. Those who were charged operated in Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Florida.
Five of those 25 defendants will be sentenced on July 27 in a federal district court in Fort Lauderdale after pleading guilty in May to wire fraud conspiracy, according to the US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. They each face up to 20 years in federal prison.
Purchasers of the fake associate or bachelor’s degrees received transcripts showing that they completed coursework. Some 2800 of the buyers passed the national nursing licensing exam to become registered nurses and licensed practice nurses/vocational nurses in hospitals, nursing homes, and Veterans Affairs medical centers around the country, according to The New York Times.
Napoleon’s attorney, Joel DeFabio, told Medscape Medical News that he requested a lower sentence than the 4 years recommended in sentencing guidelines because Napoleon pled guilty quickly and cooperated with the federal investigation.
DeFabio said that Napoleon will appear as the government’s witness in a trial in November against Gail Russ, who is one defendant, along with 13 others in the case involving the Palm Beach School of Nursing.
Meanwhile, state nursing boards have been trying to locate nurses who received the fake degrees. In March, the New York nursing board told 903 nurses to either surrender their licenses or prove they had the appropriate education. The board estimated that another 2300 licensees from the Florida schools had pending applications.
Some nurses who received fake diplomas are pushing back. Attorneys for nurses in Georgia and Pennsylvania claim that their clients were either victims or in some cases, have legitimate credentials.
“The quality of nursing education as well as protection of applicants from these harmful schemes is essential to maintaining the strict standards of the nursing profession,” FNA’s Fuller told Medscape Medical News.
Alicia Ault is a Saint Petersburg, Florida-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including JAMA and Smithsonian.com. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.
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