Melissa Howard, Republican candidate for Florida House District 73, is being pressured to withdraw from the race following allegations she lied about her education, and produced a fake diploma from Miami University of Ohio to cover up her lie.
Melissa Howard: “that was a lie”
Local news provider FLA News reported on August 7th that Howard’s official campaign biography, which refers to her “graduating” from Miami University of Ohio, was incorrect. To substantiate their claims, FLA News spoke to the National Student Clearinghouse, which officially verifies degrees for colleges around the country (including Miami University). According to the “DegreeVerify Certificate” obtained, Howard enrolled at the Ohio institution, but did not graduate.
No college degree is required to serve in the Florida legislature, so Howard had no incentive other than personal pride to misrepresent her educational record. When asked for comment by FLA News she responded, “that was a lie” and then set out to convince the website to withdraw the story.
Degree of falsehood
After the FLA News story was reported, Melissa Howard flew north to her home state of Ohio to gather evidence. On Facebook she published a photo (now removed) of herself and her mother posing on a sofa with her Miami University diploma. FLA News rescinded the story, and the matter seemed to be at an end.
Unfortunately for Howard, however, the Miami University administration were following the story and were able to thoroughly discredit her claim. Officials spotted several errors in the bogus diploma, including the awarding of a degree (Bachelor of Science in Marketing) that Miami University does not actually offer. Also the diploma included a signature from a graduate school dean who would not sign an undergraduate business degree diploma.
With the original story vindicated, FLA News un-rescinded their original story, and published an explosive follow-up.
Melissa Howard’s story and campaign unravel
Melissa Howard’s campaign soon shut down further communication with FLA News after saying that her husband, Ian Howard, had suffered a heart attack. “Melissa is focused on her family – not fake news this morning,” a campaign spokesperson said. Melissa Howard’s Twitter account has been set to private, and her campaign Facebook page has been unpublished.
But neither the focus on family issues or accusations of fakery survived the weekend of intense media and political pressure that followed.
On Monday Howard began speaking to the media again, and confirmed that she had lied about her degree in a statement published in Sarasota’s Herald-Tribune:
“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.”
How the production of a fake college diploma could not be seen as an attempt to deceive or mislead was not explained.
What has been clear is Howard’s intention of riding out the controversy. Several prominent Republicans, including past county chairpersons and her primary opponents, are insisting she stand down. In the Trump-era, however, outright lies alone are apparently no longer enough to scupper campaigns for an increasing number of Republican candidates.
With the GOP primary just two weeks away, Howard’s decision to stay in the race is perhaps cynical, but makes sense in terms of pure strategy. Absentee ballots for the race have already been posted, and early voting starts in just four days. Melissa Howard’s name is going to be on the ballot no matter what. If she can somehow squeak out a win would Florida Republicans dare vote against her in November?
As is common practice in some primaries, the Republican party officially remaining neutral – so far. Falsely claiming to have a degree is a misdemeanour under Florida law, however. If she is arrested, Sarasota GOP Chairman Joe Gruters, who also serves as Howard’s campaign treasurer, has said even he will be asking Howard to call it quits.
UPDATE (August 15th 2018): A day after insisting she would stay in the race, Melissa Howard has announced her decision to drop out. Speaking to the Herald Tribune, she said, “I made a terrible error in judgement. I am thankful for everyone who gave so much toward my success, and I am deeply sorry.”