Melissa Howard
Photo provided by Melissa Howard

Remember the State House candidate who produced a fake diploma to discredit a story first reported by FLA News? After an investigation, the Manatee County Sheriffs Office is recommending that Melissa Howard be charged with a first degree misdemeanor saying she “intended to defraud.” The Sarasota Herald-Tribune first reported the latest development.

The law enforcement report has been sent to the local state attorney for review.

FLA News reported in August that Ms. Howard didn’t earn a degree from Miami University of Ohio like she claimed on her campaign website and other literature. That was according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which partners with Miami University and other institutions to verify degree information. Howard denied the allegation and what unfolded was one of the most bizarre incidents in Florida politics, drawing national and international media attention.

Howard, apparently, obtained a fake college degree then flew to Ohio to pose for pictures with it, and posted it on social media — all in an attempt to discredit our reporting. It was only after Miami University questioned the legitimacy of the diploma that her failed attempt at deception unraveled. Howard admitted she had faked the diploma, saying she didn’t “intend to deceive,” but decided to stay in the House District 73 race. A day later, she dropped out in the face of public and private pressure.

In the probable cause finding, a Manatee Sheriffs investigator wrote, “The defendant Melissa Howard, intended to defraud and misrepresent her association and academic standing with Miami University. Furthermore, the defendant produced the fictitious diploma and uttered it as being awarded to her as true, while knowing it to be false.”

If charged and convicted, Howard could face up to one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

But Howard doesn’t expect to be charged. She told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in a text message, “To the best of my knowledge and information, the state attorney’s office is not pursuing a misdemeanor charge against me.”

If Howard’s statement is accurate, the next question would be, why not? While the state attorney has prosecutorial discretion, the state statute she allegedly violated is clear.

Florida statute 817.566 states, “ … any person who utters and publishes or otherwise represents such a document, degree, certificate, diploma, award, record, letter, transcript, form, or other paper as true, knowing it to be false, is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.”

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