Melissa Howard, a Florida state House candidate who gained notoriety after she was caught touting a fake college diploma, has dropped out of the GOP primary election scheduled in two weeks.
Howard withdrew Tuesday, a day after she admitted falsely claiming to be a college graduate but vowed to stay in the race, her campaign treasurer, Joe Gruters, confirmed to The Washington Post. Howard also told local media outlets, including the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, ABC affiliate WZVN-TV and Florida Politics, that she “made a terrible error in judgment” and that she is “deeply sorry.”
“I have come to the realization that the right thing to do for my community is to withdraw from the race. . . . I am thankful for everyone who gave me so much toward my success,” she told the media outlets.
Howard did not respond to calls and text messages from The Washington Post. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State said the agency has not received a formal notice of withdrawal from Howard.
The diploma fiasco began early last week, when FLA News reported that the 46-year-old small-business owner from Lakewood Ranch, Fla., does not have the college credentials she said she has. Howard, who claimed to have a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Miami University of Ohio, sought to prove that the FLA News story was false by sharing a picture of her framed college diploma. But her story began to unravel after the university revealed late last week that she never graduated — and that the diploma was not real.
Howard broke her days-long silence Monday when she said she “made a mistake” in falsely claiming she had graduated from college. She apologized to her family and supporters and said she didn’t intend to “deceive or mislead anyone.”
But Howard has yet to address how or where she obtained the diploma. She also did not explain why she falsely misrepresented her academic credentials — even though not having a college degree does not disqualify her from running for public office.
Howard was seeking the GOP nomination for the Florida House of Representatives’ 73rd District, near Sarasota. County GOP officials said earlier that they were not calling on Howard to drop out and that they would 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,” Kathleen King, GOP chairwoman of Manatee County, where Howard lives, told The Washington Post.
To prove the FLA News story was false, Howard 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 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 — only to rescind said correction shortly thereafter.
An email from Miami University revealed that Howard had not been truthful about what degree she supposedly obtained, what year she supposedly graduated, even what major she supposedly pursued. Robin Parker, Miami University’s general counsel, said that the diploma Howard displayed showed her graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. But the university offers no such degree and has always awarded marketing majors a bachelor’s degree in business. 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 at Miami University was not marketing; it was retailing, 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 James C. Garland, university president, and Robert C. Johnson, dean. Although Garland was 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 also 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. Online photos of her transcript and diploma were deleted, and her campaign Facebook page was soon deactivated. Howard’s campaign consultant, Anthony Pedicini, said Saturday that Howard’s husband had suffered a cardiac incident, and she is focusing on her family.
Despite the revelations, her campaign accused the media of engaging in “fake news.” Asked why the campaign is using the term “fake news,” Pedicini said he has no further comment. On Tuesday, he said he no longer works for Howard’s campaign.
Forging documents such as 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 were 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 on Howard’s academic background Aug. 7. 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 seemed 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.