MONROVIA – Mr. Stanton A. Witherspoon, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of SPOON Network Inc. has admitted to committing fraud in the healthcare system of the United States of America—a crime that could see him put behind bars for up to 20 years.
After eight months of an intense legal battle, the CEO of SPOON Network, which comprises Spoon FM and TV, Fabric FM, and Super FM and TV, reached a guilty plea agreement with the US government, which was officially disclosed on August 24.
The agreement saw Whiterspoon, the host of the popular Spoon Talk Show, change his previous plea from not guilty to guilty — a backtrack that comes as a shock to many Liberians, especially those who empathize with him.
In January of this year, public prosecutors in the state of Florida indicted Witherspoon and 24 others for selling fraudulent nursing diplomas and transcripts to quasi-licensed practical and registered nurses in the US.
The accused were charged for participating in a wire fraud scheme that created an illegal licensing and employment shortcut for aspiring nurses.
They allegedly sold more than 7,600 bogus nursing certificates; and they earned US$114 million. The overall scheme, the indictment said, involved the distribution of fake nursing diplomas issued by three South Florida-based nursing schools: Siena College in Broward County (in which Witherspoon owns a 50 percent share); Palm Beach School of Nursing, based in Palm Beach County; and The Sacred Heart International Institute, located in Broward County.
According to the indictment, Witherspoon used his company, the Nursing Education Resource Center (NERC), which was based in Newport, Delaware, to buy a 50% stake in Siena Education Center and Siena College (collectively Siena) and then conspired with his co-accused to sell fraudulent nursing degree diplomas and transcripts.
He pleaded not guilty to charges of Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud and Wire Fraud when he was arraigned in Federal Court in New Jersey on February 9, 2023—a stance agreeing that he committed the crime.
However, the guilty plea agreement with the US government, officially disclosed on August 24, outlines several key points.
Witherspoon agreed to plead guilty to Count 1 of the indictment, which charges him with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1349. In return, the United States has agreed to dismiss the remaining counts against him at the time of sentencing.
In the agreement, Witherspoon acknowledges that the court will determine his sentence after considering the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, including a pre-sentence investigation by the probation office, and that the court retains the authority to impose any sentence within the statutory maximum for the offense.
The potential penalties in the agreement is that Witherspoon faces a statutory maximum term of imprisonment of up to twenty years, followed by three years of supervised release. “Additionally, he may be subject to a fine of up to $250,000 or an amount tied to the gross gain or loss from the offense,” the agreement document states.
Additional punishments include a mandatory payment of special assessment fees of $100 at the time of sentencing, and he will be excluded from Federal Healthcare Programs.
“As a result of this plea, Witherspoon will be excluded from Medicare, Medicaid, and all Federal healthcare programs. However, this exclusion does not affect his eligibility to apply for and receive benefits as a beneficiary under these programs,” the document says. “Witherspoon agrees to cooperate fully with the United States in the investigation and identification of assets related to the case, including liquidating assets if necessary. He must also provide complete and truthful information about his assets and any transfers valued at more than $10,000.”
It appears as though the agreement with the US government might have leaked, as reports spread in Monrovia last week that Witherspoon had pleaded guilty, though the information, also reported by the New Dawn Newspaper, was rebuffed by some of his supporters.
However, the SPOON Network CEO is not the only defendant in the case who has pleaded guilty. A May 15, 2023 press release on the website of the United States Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Florida – Department of Justice indicated that five defendants charged in the Southern District of Florida for their alleged participation in a scheme that created an illegal licensing and employment shortcut for aspiring nurses have pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy.
Those who pleaded guilty, according to the release, were Krystal Lopez and Damian Lopez (both of Palm Beach County, Fla.); Francois Legagneur (of Nassau County, N.Y.), Reynoso Seide (of Union County, N.J.); and Yelva Saint Preux (of Suffolk County, N.Y.)
Meanwhile, Witherspoon is now at a point of no return as the agreement makes it clear that Witherspoon cannot withdraw his guilty plea solely because of the sentence imposed by the court.
This surprising change in plea comes as a shock to many, as Witherspoon had previously maintained his innocence. The case against him alleges involvement in a significant wire fraud conspiracy, resulting in substantial financial losses.
With the guilty plea now on record, the court will proceed with the sentencing phase which is scheduled for November 2, considering the agreed-upon sentencing recommendations outlined in the plea agreement. These recommendations include a base offense level, amount of loss, role in the offense, and acceptance of responsibility.
The Southern District of Florida’s Office of the United States Attorney reserves the right to inform the court and the probation office of all relevant facts for the sentencing process. However, these recommendations are not binding on the court, which will ultimately determine Witherspoon’s sentence. Courtesy: Liberian Observer