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A New Jersey assisted living community was among many “unwitting healthcare providers” across the country duped into hiring more than 7,600 nurses with fake credentials due to a $114 million fraud scheme, according to the federal government. 

The Department of Justice announced federal charges last week against 25 nursing school recruiters, owners and managers for a wire fraud scheme that created an illegal licensing and employment shortcut for aspiring nurses. Dubbed “Operational Nightingale,” the investigation resulted in search warrants in five states: Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Florida.

“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 healthcare roles treating patients,” Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough with the FBI Miami office said in a statement.

According to three unsealed indictments from a South Florida federal grand jury and two informations filed by federal prosecutors, the scheme involved the sale of fraudulent nursing degree diplomas and transcripts from accredited Florida-based nursing schools for an average of $15,000 each. The “bogus diplomas” and transcripts qualified individuals to sit for the national nursing board exam and obtain licenses and jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses in various states.

The overall scheme involved three now-closed South Florida-based nursing schools: Siena College and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County, and Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County.

According to a grand jury indictment, an assisted living community in New Jersey was among the providers that hired nurses with fake credentials from Palm Beach School of Nursing. The school is accused of providing fake diplomas and transcripts to seven “co-conspirators” between April 2016 and July 2021 for associate nursing or LPN degrees. 

Those individuals, the Justice Department said, used those fake credentials to obtain employment in various states at “unwitting” healthcare providers throughout the country, including the New Jersey assisted living community; skilled nursing facilities in Ohio, New Jersey and New York; and a New York rehabilitation facility, a New York US Department of Veterans Affairs medical center, and a Massachusetts home health facility.

According to an information and an indictment, Siena College allegedly sold 2,016 fraudulent diplomas and educations transcripts from Nov. 17, 2018, through October 2021, falsely representing that the “students” had completed the necessary courses and clinical training to obtain nursing degrees that led to employment by “various unwitting healthcare providers throughout the country,” including a Georgia hospital and a Maryland Veterans Affairs medical center.

According to an information, Sacred Heart International Institute from November 2020 through July 2021 sold 588 false and fraudulent diplomas and educational transcripts. According to an indictment, the school provided LPN credentials that allowed individuals to obtain employment at various healthcare providers throughout the country, including two Texas skilled nursing facilities and a Texas home health facility.

The charging documents allege that the charged individuals solicited and recruited accomplices seeking nursing credentials to obtain employment as an RN or LPN/VN in the healthcare field, created and distributed false and fraudulent diplomas and transcripts, used the fraudulent documents to obtain employment, concealed the use of those fraudulent documents to obtain employment and used the proceeds of the fraud for their personal use and benefit.

Each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison.

“Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and course work required to obtain their professional licenses and employment,” US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe said in a statement. He added that a “fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our healthcare system.”