Two nursing school operators in the Fort Lauderdale area have fessed up to peddling fake diplomas to thousands of students who could then avoid completing a rigorous program before taking licensing exams in what prosecutors say was a multimillion-dollar racket stretching from South Florida to New York.
Charles Etienne, 60, president of Sacred Heart International Institute in Fort Lauderdale, and Eunide Sanon, 60, owner of Siena College of Health in Lauderhill, respectively pleaded guilty on Tuesday and last month to a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in federal court.
Both face up to 20 years in prison but are expected to receive much less time for accepting responsibility early on, according to their lawyers, Tama Kudman and Mark Lowry. As part of their sentencing, Sanon must turn over more than $1 million and Etienne about $200,000 to the U.S. government.
According to one case, Sanon collaborated with business associates in Broward County to sell about 2,016 “false and fraudulent diplomas and educational transcripts to” students that “falsely represented” they “had completed the necessary courses and/or clinical training to obtain nursing degrees from Siena.”
According to another case, Etienne collaborated with those associates in Broward to sell about 588 “false and fraudulent diplomas and educational transcripts” under the same circumstances at Sacred Heart.
In January, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami rattled the healthcare industry when they unveiled these two cases in addition to three other indictments charging 23 other people who had ownership interests, worked as employees or played the roles of recruiters for the two nursing schools as well as a third program, Palm Beach School of Nursing.
The network of nursing school operators, centered in South Florida, illegally charged each student between $10,000 for a licensed practical nurse degree and $17,000 for a registered nurse diploma — without requiring proper training, according to federal authorities and court records.
The scofflaw schools provided a “shortcut” for students to avoid taking a nearly two-year nursing program requiring clinical work, national exams and certification, while instructors coached them on taking the licensing exams to practice nursing in a number of states, authorities said.
An estimated 7,600 students paid a total of $114 million for phony nursing degrees from the South Florida schools and other suspect programs between 2016 and 2021. Of those, one-third, or about 2,400 students, ended up passing their licensing exams, mainly in New York, which imposes no limit on the number of times that students can take the exam. Nurses certified in New York have the ability to practice in other states, including Florida.
Now, those students who passed the nursing exams may lose their certification — though they won’t be criminally charged, according to federal authorities. The FBI said it has notified nursing boards in all 50 states of every student who obtained a fake nursing degree and passed the exam.
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Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General in Miami, said that, despite obvious public concern, the investigation has found no harm caused by any suspect nurses to patients so far.
The investigation, aptly dubbed Operation Nightingale, began in 2019 with a tip from Maryland that led to an FBI undercover operation that initially targeted two Fort Lauderdale business people, Geralda Adrien and Woosvelt Predestin, who both pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. They cooperated with authorities and were sentenced to more than two years and three months in prison in 2022.
Adrien owned two private education companies, Docu-Flex & More and PowerfulU Health Care Services, where Predestin was an employee. Together they schemed with Siena College of Health in Lauderhill, Sacred Heart International Institute in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach School of Nursing in Lake Worth “to sell fraudulent diplomas and college transcripts,” according to court records.
Also initially targeted: The Palm Beach School of Nursing’s president, Johanah Napoleon of West Palm Beach, who pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge, cooperated with authorities and faces sentencing next Tuesday.
All three defendants reached plea agreements with Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Clark and helped investigators develop the bigger case, resulting in about 25 arrests in January. More arrests are expected in the coming months, authorities said.