By Zac Anderson
State House candidate Melissa Howard admitted Monday that she lied about having a degree from Miami University, apologized and declared she intends to stay in a race that has drawn national attention after it came out she was displaying a fake diploma and had gone to great lengths to deceive people about her college credentials.
"I would like to apologize to my family and my supporters for this situation," Howard said in a statement. "It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone. I made a mistake in saying that I completed my degree. What I did was wrong and set a bad example for someone seeking public service. I am staying in the race and intend to win and lead by example from now on."
Howard did not address the question about how she obtained a diploma stating she has a degree in marketing from Miami University, a degree the school doesn't even offer. Howard's admission means there is now no question the diploma is a fake, but it's unclear who forged the document.
Howard's decision to stay in the race is another bombshell development in a sensational story that has been featured in major media outlets such as The Washington Post, New York Times, "Good Morning America," CNN and Fox News.
With 13 days left before the Aug. 28 primary and more than 20,000 Republican ballots already cast in Sarasota and Manatee counties, Howard is gambling that voters will overlook her transgressions and the GOP will rally behind her if she makes it into the general election.
Howard may have been emboldened by Republican Party leaders, who have not called on her to drop out, saying her fate should be left up to voters.
Sarasota GOP Chairman Joe Gruters reiterated that position after Howard admitted to lying Monday.
"My position remains the same, the party's are not there to engage in primaries," said Gruters, who serves as the treasurer of Howard's campaign. "We have two weeks from the election. Voters are smart. The voters should decide. They obviously are going to know the facts through campaign mailers and through the media; my guess is this is going to be a very hard thing to overcome."
Gruters said will call for Howard's resignation "if she is arrested."
"But in the meantime it's a slippery slope when you start asking candidates who lie to remove themselves from the ballot," he said.
Manatee County GOP Chairwoman Kathy King also said Monday that Howard's announcement does not change her postion that "It is up to the voters of that district to determine if this is someone they want to represent them and legislate policy on their behalf." House District 73 includes eastern Manatee County and part of eastern Sarasota County.
But Howard could still face legal troubles related to the fake diploma.
Law enforcement officials are being asked to investigate the Lakewood Ranch businesswoman for possible criminal fraud stemming from the diploma.
Former Manatee County GOP Chairwoman Donna Hayes, who has endorsed Howard's GOP opponent in the District 73 race, sent a letter Tuesday to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen and 12th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Ed Brodsky.
Hayes states in her letter that "manufacturing ... academic credentials for gain is a serious crime. While voters certainly will not be fooled, there may be many other clients and businesses that paid her fees for services based on a false level of academic achievement."
Howard owns a medical trade show business with her husband.
Florida statute 817.566 states that "Any person, with intent to defraud, misrepresents his or her association with, or academic standing or progress at, any post-secondary educational institution by falsely making, altering, simulating, or forging" a degree is guilty of a first degree misdemeanor.
Seeking to rebut claims that she lied about graduating from Miami University, Howard has displayed pictures of a framed diploma purported to be from the school.
Hayes said she consulted with an attorney friend before sending the letter to law enforcement.
"I don't know what they could do to her, but I do understand there's a criminal nature to this," Hayes said. "She has committed a crime which is outlined under the Florida statutes."
Brodsky said law enforcement must investigate the issue before his office gets involved.
"Whether or not she did make false assertions about her degree, if they found there was probable cause a crime was committed they could forward that to our office to review for initiating of a prosecution," Brosky said, adding: "We haven't received a complaint from law enforcement. If and when law enforcement conducts an investigation and forwards it to our office, we'll investigate from there."
Howard's GOP primary opponent, Sarasota attorney and Air Force veteran Tommy Gregory, accused her of breaking the law Monday.
"Melissa Howard has lied, broken the law, and refused to apologize," Gregory said in a statement. "In the military, she would be discharged dishonorably. We now have a clear distinction for the voters, and I will be making my case that I have the courage and integrity to fight the establishment and clean up the corruption that has caused conservatives to lose faith in our elected officials."
Howard's campaign has been thrown into turmoil by the degree controversy, which has drawn attention -- in part -- because of Howard's elaborate effort to conceal her lack of a degree.
Confronted last week by the conservative website Florida News Online about records from the National Student Clearinghouse indicating Howard did not graduate, as she claimed, the candidate pushed back hard. She claimed on Facebook that she flew to Ohio to obtain her college transcripts and diploma, displaying pictures of both online. But the story unraveled when Miami University general counsel Robin Parker sent an email to the Herald-Tribune and other media outlets saying Howard never graduated and the diploma "does not appear to be an accurate Miami University diploma."
Howard has not responded to interview requests since Parker's email was reported.
Hayes and some other prominent Republicans have called on Howard to drop out, but party leaders at the state level also have ignored such calls so far.
Republican Party of Florida officials and incoming GOP House Speaker Jose Oliva have not responded to requests for comment.
A.J. Janson -- the Republican state committeewoman for Sarasota County -- said Howard's behavior is "egregious" but shares Gruters' postion on the party staying out of the race.
"I find Melissa Howard's deception extremely egregious," Janson said. "However, this being said, I trust the intelligence of our Sarasota Republican electorate and leave the decision to them."
But former Sarasota GOP Chair Eric Robinson said Monday that the party should urge Howard to drop out.
"The party should ask her to step aside because the party's number one goal is to get Republicans elected to office, and she's going to have a hard time in the general election," said Robinson, a CPA and Sarasota County School Board member who serves as the treasurer for Gregory.
Martin Hyde, a prominent Sarasota Republican who ran for the Sarasota City Commission and is not backing any candidate in the primary, said he would never vote for Howard and the party should immediately distance itself from her.
"It can't condone it, can't sit by and say nothing," Hyde said, adding: "It's going to hurt the party" if she wins the primary.
"I think it's a terrible risk to nail your colors to somebody like this," Hyde said.
Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, a Gregory supporter, said it's "very selfish" of Howard to stay in the race.
"Do you really want every person on the ticket to have to go on record and state the obvious as to whether something like this is acceptable or not?" Caragiulo said.
"I'm just astounded by this," he added.
(c)2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.