Melissa Howard
Photo provided by Melissa Howard

Melissa Howard, the former State House candidate who faked a diploma in order to hide her lie about having a college degree, has entered into a first-time offender program after facing a 1st degree misdemeanor charge.

Howard signed a deferred prosecution agreement Friday morning at the Manatee County judicial center. Court documents list Miami University as the victim in the case. In order to avoid a criminal record, Howard will have to perform community service, pay a $165 fine and will be placed on probation.

A Manatee County Sheriff’s investigation found probable cause that Howard used deception in using a fake diploma to allege she had graduated from Miami University of Ohio. FLA News first reported in August that while Howard claimed to have a degree, National Student Clearinghouse records found that she never graduated. In response to our initial story, Howard obtained a phony degree, posted on social media pictures of her holding it and claimed “the truth shall set you free.” Miami University then confirmed to FLA News that the degree was not authentic.

The story then took on a life of its own receiving national and international media coverage.

Howard finally acknowledged she had lied but chose to stay in the District 73 House race. Just one day later she dropped out. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Shortly after her withdraw from the race, the Manatee County Sheriffs Office began an investigation. Claiming to have a certain academic standing with intent to defraud is a crime in Florida. The investigation found probable cause that she violated the law and the report was sent to the office of State Attorney Ed Brodsky for review. Considering her standing in the community, some political observers in Manatee County doubted the investigation would go anywhere – but that wasn’t the case.

“She violated state law and we chose to move forward,” State Attorney Brodsky told FLA News.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune first reported Thursday that Howard was under criminal investigation. And despite signing the plea agreement Friday morning, Howard appears to have mislead the Herald-Tribune by saying “To the best of my knowledge and information, the state attorney’s office is not pursuing a misdemeanor charge against me.”

Howard was allowed to enter a first-time offenders program and if she fulfills the terms of the agreement will avoid a criminal record. The real punishment, however, is most likely to her reputation. Howard is a high profile resident of Manatee County, and has served in various social and political groups. Polling showed she was leading in the House District 73 Republican primary until her withdraw.

David Bishop is a native Floridian, husband and father. During his 30 year career, David has been a journalist, political operative and communications consultant.