State officials call for nurses to surrender licenses in diploma scam

Three of the nurses accused of having fake degrees worked at the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Georgia nurses accused of having fake diplomas say their degrees are legitimate

A federal investigation into three Florida-based nursing schools that allegedly sold fake nursing degrees has begun to have local repercussions, as state officials asked almost two dozen Georgia nurses to surrender their licenses.

According to federal officials the plot involved three South Florida-based nursing schools, Siena College, Palm Beach School of Nursing and Sacred Heart International Institute, that sold more than 7,600 counterfeit diplomas and transcripts for $10,000 to $15,000.

In Georgia, 22 practicing nurses allegedly obtained their licenses with fake diplomas or transcripts. On Jan.17, the Georgia Board of Nursing formally requested the nurses to surrender their nursing licenses within 30 days.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said state investigators are working with the FBI to revoke the nursing licenses of the nurses who won’t give back the licenses on their own. The number of nurses who turned in their licenses by the deadline was not available Friday afternoon..

“We are working closely with federal law enforcement concerning potential Georgia connections to this case and will act quickly to protect Georgia patients,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Hahnah Williams, an Atlanta-based attorney representing several of the nurses affected by the scam, says that her clients degrees and licenses are legitimate.

“My clients are compassionate, hardworking immigrants who came to this country in pursuit of a better life. They legitimately obtained their education from accredited nursing schools and subsequently passed their licensing exams,” Williams said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On Jan. 25, the Department of Health and Human Services announced charges against 25 individuals affiliated with the Florida schools, in what they said was a “wire fraud scheme that created an illegal licensing and employment shortcut for aspiring nurses.” If convicted, each defendant in what officials have named, Operation Nightingale, could face up to 20 years in prison.

“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,” Chad Yarbrough, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami office, said in a Department of Justice press release.

The New York Times reported that 37 percent of those who purchased fake degrees passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), a national licensing test taken by nurses.

Since the news of the investigation broke, Florida’s Commission for Independent Education has now ordered seven Florida nursing schools to stop graduations and enrollments until March 31, at least, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

A Channel 2 Action News report found that three of the nurses accused of having fake degrees worked at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. Information was not available on the employment status of the other 19 nurses.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said in a emailed statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the VA was alerted this month about “a small percentage” of their employees who received credentials from “institutions awarding fraudulent nursing degrees to students.”

“These individuals held state nursing licenses; however, these licenses may have been based on fraudulent diplomas,” said Hayes. “As the (Office of Inspector General) has noted, VA immediately removed all identified employees from clinical care last year, and they remain so today.”

Williams argues that her clients should not be categorized with the more than 7,600 individuals with nursing credentials tied to the case.

“They wish to be differentiated from individuals who fraudulently obtained their degrees, and they are hopeful that there will be a fair investigation that allows them to tell their side of the story consistent with due process under Georgia law,” said Williams.

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