Florida candidate admits faking her college diploma
Melissa Howard, a Florida state House hopeful who was caught touting a fake diploma last week, broke her days-long silence Monday when she admitted that she "made a mistake" in falsely claiming she had graduated from college.
"I would like to apologize to my family and my supporters for this situation. It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone," Howard said in a brief statement on Facebook. "What I did was wrong and set a bad example for someone seeking public service."
Howard, 46, seeks the GOP nomination for the 73rd District, near Sarasota. In her statement released two weeks before the primary, she said she is staying in the race and intends "to win and lead by example from now on."
Howard, however, did not address how or where she obtained the diploma or why she falsely misrepresented her academic credentials. Not having a college degree does not disqualify her from running for public office.
County GOP officials are not calling on Howard to drop out of the race and said they will let voters decide Aug. 28.
"We don't support that kind of stuff, but we're leaving that up to the voters to decide who they best think would represent them and legislate policy on their behalf," said Kathleen King, GOP chairwoman of Manatee County, where Howard lives.
The diploma fiasco began early last week, when a news site reported that the small-business owner from Lakewood Ranch, Florida, does not have the college credentials she said she has. Howard claimed that she graduated with a marketing degree in 1996 and went to great lengths to prove that the story was false. She flew to Ohio to get a copy of her transcript from Miami University in Oxford and shared a partial picture of it on Facebook. She went to her mother's house where her college diploma had been in storage, as she told local media, and shared a picture of herself and her mother smiling next to it. And she provided the news site FLA News with a photo of her wearing a cap and gown during what appears to be a graduation event.
FLA News, rescinded the story and issued a correction. But Howard's story soon began to unravel.
Not only did Howard not graduate, but the framed diploma that she claimed was proof of her academic credentials was also not real, according to Miami University.
A damaging email from the university revealed that Howard had not been truthful about what degree she supposedly obtained, what year she supposedly graduated or what major she supposedly pursued. Robin Parker, Miami University's general counsel, said that the diploma showed Howard graduated with a bachelor's degree in marketing. But the university offers no such degree and has always awarded a bachelor's degree in business to marketing majors. The diploma also stated that she graduated in December 1996, but she was not enrolled that year. Howard attended the university from 1990 to 1994 without graduating, Parker said.
Howard's major was retailing, not marketing, Parker said. If she had graduated, she would have had a bachelor's degree in family and consumer sciences.
And one university official's name on the diploma should not have been on there, Parker said. The diploma has signatures from university President James Garland and Dean Robert Johnson. Although Garland was the president of Miami University in 1996, Johnson was dean of the graduate school and would not have been the official signing an undergraduate diploma.
Parker said that the university allows students "to walk" during ceremonies even if they are not graduating, which might explain the picture of Howard in a cap and gown.
By Saturday, after Miami University alerted news outlets of the discrepancies, Howard was silent. Photos of her transcript and diploma were deleted online, and her campaign Facebook page was soon deactivated.
Despite the revelations, her campaign accused the media of engaging in "fake news." Howard's campaign consultant, Anthony Pedicini, also said Saturday that her husband had suffered a cardiac incident, and she is focusing on her family. Asked why the campaign is using the term "fake news," Pedicini said he had no further comment.
Forging documents like a diploma to misrepresent one's academic standing or association with a college or university is considered a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Miami University spokeswoman Claire Wagner said that school officials are "content with correcting the record" and have no plans to pursue claims against Howard.
"The decision to pursue criminal charges is a matter for the appropriate law enforcement authorities in Florida," Wagner said.
For criminal charges to be filed, someone must first make a complaint to the local police department, which then conducts an investigation and submits its findings to prosecutors, said Ed Brodsky, state attorney for Florida's 12th Judicial Circuit, which covers Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. He said he does not know of a complaint against Howard.
King, the county GOP chairwoman, did not answer questions about what party officials would do if Howard is charged.
"We don't comment on hypotheticals," she said. "We're going to let that play out and respond accordingly."
FLA News, which describes itself as "the conservative choice for Florida news & politics," first reported Aug. 7 on Howard's academic background. Citing records from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that verifies enrollment and graduation, FLA News reported that Howard attended Miami University from August 1990 to May 1994 but did not obtain a degree.
According to Howard's campaign website, which seems to have crashed Tuesday, she was born to a blue-collar family in "Middle America" and is the first in her family to attend college. "Upon graduation," the website said, Howard worked for large and small companies before starting her own marketing business. A campaign profile published by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune says Howard is co-owner of IMMEXLS and International Medical Trade Show and employs five people.
This article was written by Kristine Phillips, a reporter for The Washington Post.