When a candidate has fake credentials—and sends you her fake diploma

Melissa Howard poses with her mother and a fake diploma from Miami University in Ohio. Photo courtesy of FLA News Online.

David Bishop is the owner and only employee of FLA News, a conservative political news site that he launched two months ago out of his home, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. On August 1, Bishop received a tip that Melissa Howard, a candidate in a Republican primary for the state House of Representatives, did not have a college degree despite claiming on her website that she graduated from Ohio’s Miami University.

The following week, having searched for Howard’s academic record on the National Student Clearinghouse website, Bishop posted a story revealing that she didn’t have the credentials she said she did. Asked about the discrepancy, Howard told him, “That was a lie.” To prove her point, Howard flew to Ohio and took a photo with her mother next to what appeared to be a Miami University diploma. She posted the picture to Facebook and sent it to Bishop, who quickly retracted his article and put up a mea culpa on his site. Within hours, however, Howard was rebuffed by Miami University—the degree in the staged photograph, it turned out, was a fake. Bishop posted a separate story with comment from the school. “My moment of redemption came when I got the email from the university,” Bishop tells CJR. “It was a good feeling to know I did not get this wrong.”

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On Monday, Howard apologized in a Facebook post that has since been taken down, according to CNN. “It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone,” she wrote. “I made a mistake in saying that I completed my degree.” On Tuesday, Howard announced that she was ending her campaign. Bishop talked to CJR about his site, how he received the tip, and the decision to retract his initial story. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

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Tell me about your journalism career. What is your background?

I started my career working at a radio station Marianna, Florida, a small town of about 5,000 people. I went to Troy University in Alabama to study journalism. I did not graduate because I was offered a job at a TV station while I was there, though I later graduated from Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science. My first job was anchoring weekend sports, then I started doing news reporting, then I left there for a year to go work at a TV station in Panama City, Florida. Then I went back to Dothan to be a news anchor. I was there for about a year and a half. I went to Tallahassee and became a weekend news anchor and reporter for 5 years. Then I got out of the TV news business and did public relations for various agencies within the Florida government. I have also done marketing and consulting for political candidates.

 

Why did you decide to start your website?

I was looking around in Florida, where I was born and raised, and I didn’t see a website that appealed to the conservative masses, covering state politics. So I decided to give it a shot. I knew that, for most people who do these kind of things for a living, you’re not going to get rich off of it. I’m self financing this. The only money I’m making is from Google Ads. It’s a labor of love. It’s cost me more money than it has made for me but I’m committed to doing it because I think it’s something that needs to be done in this state. I don’t consider myself to be a traditional journalist. I started my career as a TV news reporter—some would say that’s not traditional journalism.

 

David Bishop of FLA News Online. Courtesy photo.

 

You said it costs you more money than make to do this. How are you managing? Is it just from savings?

Yeah, I have the means to be able to finance this myself for a bit. I wanted to see if it was going to take off. I’m pretty convinced now after this past week that this website is a long-term commitment. On a good day, in the two months I’ve been around, I do about 2,500 to 3,500 unique page views a day. All of the stories I have posted on her degree, all together, have received 82,000 unique pageviews.

 

 

How did you receive the tip that started this?

I got a call just like every working reporter gets calls. A person told me there was this candidate running down in Sarasota and Manatee counties, for a state house seat, who claimed to have a college degree but she didn’t have one. That race was not on my radar at all. I didn’t know anything about that race; Florida is a big state. The first thing I did was look at her campaign website and where she said she graduated. Then the first place I went was the National Student Clearinghouse to find out from their records if she had a college degree or not. It took me a couple of days and their records came back and she did not. You know, most tips lead nowhere. But I knew I had a story when those records came back.

Then I reached out to the candidate. She and I were supposed to talk that Friday, then she put me off to Saturday morning and I asked her point blank about it. She called it a lie and said she could produce yearbook pictures. What I asked for was the one thing that I thought would prove all this—a diploma. She promised to get it to me that Saturday. I didn’t receive it Saturday, Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday. I began feeling like I was getting the runaround. I thought I had a good story just based on the clearinghouse information. I even went back to the clearinghouse and asked them to reverify this because of her insistence that she did have a college degree. Based on them verifying that, I ran the story Tuesday, a week ago today. I thought the story would get some play, but to my surprise my story got nothing—no other media pickups. It was like a tree falling in the forest. No one heard it.

 

How did nobody hear it? I mean, it’s juicy as hell.

I later learned that her campaign was telling everyone that it was a lie. Her consultant was working behind the scenes talking to other political reporters telling them that I had gotten the story wrong.

 

How do you know that?

People talk. Listen, I’ve worked with reporters for a long time in the state.

 

What happened next?

I got an email from her campaign consultants saying she’s flying to Ohio to get her transcripts and her diploma. They said, “We’ll send you a picture Friday, we expect a retraction.” So then, you know what happens with anyone who breaks a big story, some self doubt starts to creep in. But I’ll tell you, the biggest mistake I made in this was this point right here. When they texted me the picture, I retracted the story because I thought my information was good, but the somehow clearinghouse must have gotten this wrong, because never in my wildest dreams did I think she would double down on a lie by getting a fake diploma printed, flying to Ohio, and posing for a picture with her mother, holding the diploma.

So I retracted the story for 5 hours, but the thing I didn’t do is give up on the story. I reached out to Miami University general counsel’s office. They had seen her posting on Facebook. On Friday, I got an email laying it out, saying, “No, she didn’t have a degree; no, she wasn’t enrolled in 1996; and there are troubling inconsistencies on the diploma.” I put the story back up immediately and began writing the next story, which I put up Saturday morning and then the whole thing blew up.

 

In my 25 years in and around politics in the state of Florida, I’ve never seen a politician so bold. She flew to Ohio, posed with the diploma with her mother, just to prove me and my reporting wrong.

 

Why did you decide to retract the first story?

I was giving her the benefit of the doubt because she produced the diploma. I took her for her word, because I didn’t think she would go to the lengths she did to double down on the lie. I beat myself up over that for the past couple of days. I should have verified with the university first. I didn’t do that. It’s a mistake that won’t happen again.

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When you posted the statement from the university, did you hear from her?

No, the only thing I got was a statement saying her husband “had a cardiac event last night and is in Lakewood Ranch hospital. Melissa is focused on her family – not fake news this morning.” There’s a lot of irony in her talking about fake news when we’re talking about a fake degree. It’s very rich.

 

I have to ask this question: Was it Tommy Gregory, who is Howard’s opponent, or someone associated with him who gave you the tip?  

No.

 

You saw her apology. What did you make of it?

Well, I wrote a story, and I was the first to report this—that using a fake degree to claim academic standing is a first-degree misdemeanor in Florida. The trigger for that being a crime is intent to deceive. So when she put out a statement saying she had no intent to deceive, I knew exactly what they were doing—trying to prevent her from being charged with a crime. You know, nobody told me about that statute, I just went out to research the statutes to see if that was a crime, and it is.

 

 

How do you feel about this whole controversy?

What she did was pretty audacious. In my 25 years in and around politics in the state of Florida, I’ve never seen a politician so bold. She flew to Ohio, posed with the diploma with her mother, just to prove me and my reporting wrong. You know, I don’t celebrate this. I don’t know her, I didn’t know of her until two weeks ago, There’s nothing personal. But what I think it comes down to is violation of the public trust. I think this should be an eye-opener to any candidate who decides to cut the corners and not tell the truth—it will eventually come back to bite you.

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.