Credential scheme puts Coast Guard, Va. maritime academy on alert
In the months following a federal indictment in which four men were charged with selling phony U.S. Coast Guard credentials from Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy (MAMA), the service has established a task force to identify mariners who obtained a merchant mariner credential (MMC) or endorsement by fraudulent means and to initiate enforcement action against them.
“The United States Marine Transportation System remains one of the safest in the world, in part by holding professional mariners to rigorous standards,” said Cmdr. Martha Mannion, chairwoman of the Merchant Mariner Credentialing Fraud Task Force. “Licensed mariners are entrusted with the safety and security of commercial vessels, and the vast majority are dedicated, safety-conscious individuals who work hard to earn their professional credentials and endorsements. By submitting fraudulent course completion certificates, some merchant mariners succeeded in having MMCs and endorsements to MMCs issued without the requisite confirmation of professional competence.”
The October indictment alleges that Lamont Godfrey, who worked as chief administrator at the academy in Norfolk, Va., created counterfeit training certificates for people who never took a MAMA course. Three other men who were not associated with MAMA Eugene Johnson of Virginia, Shunmanique Willis of Texas and Alonzo Williams of Louisiana allegedly solicited mariners interested in buying fraudulent certificates required to hold various positions on merchant vessels.
The Coast Guard is investigating a three-year period during which more than 150 mariners reportedly bought fake qualification certificates that appeared to be from MAMA and loaded them into Coast Guard systems. The conspiracy netted more than $200,000 in profits, according to the indictment. If convicted, Godfrey, Johnson, Willis and Williams could face two years in prison for conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identify theft.
“The school is not implicated in the fraud,” said MAMA President Capt. Ed Nanartowich, adding that the scheme defrauded MAMA. The Coast Guard Investigative Service uncovered the scheme and MAMA has been assisting the service in its inquiry since January 2020. The academy had no record of the fraudulent certificates.
“Our meticulous record-keeping has been instrumental in identifying the fraudulent certificates,” Nanartowich said. “Prior students who have attended MAMA classes, whether online or in our state-of-the-art facility, and who have interacted with our instructors, tested satisfactorily and met the requirements for class attendance have nothing to worry about. The veracity of their certifications is covered internally by our course, attendance and payment records. These certificates will be recognized as a bona fide cert.”
In the year since Coast Guard investigators uncovered the scheme, MAMA has fired Godfrey, improved the academy’s management system and tightened protocols.
“We are taking it beyond seriously,” Nanartowich said. “We have instituted two- and sometimes three-person integrity in the production of certificates.”
Two of the four men charged also are named in a November 2020 indictment involving a test-fixing scheme at a Coast Guard exam center in Mandeville, La. According to this indictment, credentialing specialist Dorothy Smith entered fraudulent scores on tests required for license applications over a period of seven years, resulting in applicants being granted officer-level positions illegally.
Williams, named as an intermediary in the MAMA scheme, allegedly played the same role in the Louisiana test fixing. Willis, charged as a MAMA co-conspirator, was one of 24 current or former merchant mariners found to have an unlawful license in connection with the Louisiana scheme.