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Federal judge sends grandma, 2 others to prison for running nursing school 'diploma mill'

Jay Weaver, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI — As a group of weeping supporters bid her farewell, a 72-year-old grandmother was escorted out of a Fort Lauderdale federal courtroom to prison on Tuesday after a judge sentenced Gail Russ to more than six years for running a “diploma mill” out of a defunct nursing school that sold thousands of fake degrees for millions of dollars.

Russ, 72, the former registrar at the Palm Beach School of Nursing, was convicted of conspiracy along with a dozen wire fraud charges at trial in December, when jurors found that she carried out the dirty work of the school’s owner by selling 3,383 bogus diplomas for $10,000 to $20,000 each.

“Ms. Russ was the spigot,” federal prosecutor Christopher Clark told U.S. District Judge Raag Singhal, describing the estimated $65 million racket during the sentencing hearings for Russ and two other convicted co-defendants. “Without Ms. Russ, none of the diplomas would have been issued.”

But Singhal, who described Russ as a “mule” who handles all of the administration at the storefront nursing school, gave the elderly Coconut Creek woman a bit of a break. He opted to sentence her to 6 1/2 years rather than as much as double that punishment under federal sentencing guidelines after the defendant, her lawyers, a niece and the pastor of her church asked for leniency.

“Ten years is a life sentence for Ms. Russ,” said one of her attorneys, Samantha Vacciana, who asked the judge to give her probation.

“She is irreplaceable,” said her niece, Korinthia Miller, a lawyer. “She’s needed in our community and our family.”

 

“She has been a faithful member of our church,” said Billy Gowdy, pastor of Cathedral Church of God in Deerfield Beach.

“I’m just asking for the mercy of the court,” Russ told the judge. “My health is declining. ... I understand what is taking place. (But) if I can be granted probation, I will not break it.”

Clark, the prosecutor, who has won convictions of about 25 defendants swept up in the South Florida nursing-school scandal, reminded the judge of Russ’ wrongdoing. “This is a court of law, not a temple or a church,” he said.

In addition to Russ, the judge sentenced Cassandre Jean, 38, a student recruiter from New York, to three years in prison, and Vilaire Duroseau, 58, a student recruiter from New Jersey, to two years and nine months. At trial in December, the jury found Jean, who owned homes in Wellington, Florida, and Long Island, New York, guilty of conspiracy and four wire fraud counts, and Duroseau guilty of conspiracy and three wire fraud counts.

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