Days after being accused of lying about receiving a college degree, Florida House candidate Melissa Howard has apologized, saying she didn’t mean to mislead anyone. She says she plans to remain in the race.
She released the statement on Monday after her college degree claims turned into national news.
“I would like to apologize to my family and my supporters for this situation. It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone. I made a mistake in saying 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 is running for a seat in the Florida House, seeking to represent District 73, which includes parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties. Her opponent in the Aug. 28 Republican primary is Tommy Gregory, a Sarasota attorney.
Controversy about Howard’s background erupted after FLA News Online reported that Howard did not hold the degree from Miami University in Ohio she previously claimed to have earned.
When FLA News Online asked Howard about the discrepancy, she told them “it was a lie.”
Howard previously told the Bradenton Herald she had graduated from Miami University and obtained a marketing degree.
FLA News Online later rescinded their story and reported Howard posted a picture of a diploma and parts of a transcript to social media.
In an email statement from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, university counsel said they are “aware of the Florida House race in Sarasota, the information and photos that were posted on the HowardforHouse73 Facebook page and the stories that have been published in flanewsonline.”
The statement noted Howard, then Melissa Fox, attended the university from 1990 to 1994 but does not have a degree. University counsel noted the diploma in the photo did not appear to be “accurate.” Her major while enrolled was retailing and the degree for that program was a Bachelor of Science in family and consumer services.
“The picture of the diploma shows that Melissa Marie Fox received a Bachelor of Science in marketing degree from Miami University on December 20, 1996. We have no such record of a degree,” the statement said. “Miami University’s degree for marketing majors then, as it is now, was a Bachelor of Science in business.”
Howard was also not enrolled at Miami University as a student in the fall of 1996, according to the statement.
Howard has not replied to requests from the Bradenton Herald for comment about her college background, but her campaign consultant, Anthony Pedicini, told the Sun-Sentinel Howard’s husband had suffered a “cardiac event,” and she is “focused on him right now,” and not on “fake news.”
On Monday, when a Bradenton Herald reporter went to the address listed on her campaign paperwork, the small office in a Sarasota industrial complex was closed. Guards posted at the entrance to the gated community where she lives had specific instructions to turn away media.
If the diploma was not real, it could be a crime in the state of Florida.
Florida statute 817.566 states, “Any person who, with intent to defraud, misrepresents his or her association with, or academic standing or other progress at, any postsecondary educational institution by falsely making, altering, simulating, or forging a document, degree, certificate, diploma, award, record, letter, transcript, form, or other paper; or any person who causes or procures such a misrepresentation; or any person who utters and publishes or otherwise represents such a document, degree, certificate, diploma, award, record, letter, transcript, form, or other paper as true, knowing it to be false, is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.”
Howard is slated to appear at a “meet the candidates” luncheon for the Manatee Tiger Bay Club on Thursday at Pier 22 in Bradenton. An administrator and event coordinator for Manatee Tiger Bay Club said in an email to the Bradenton Herald Monday that Howard “ has not notified us that she is not speaking.”
Prominent local Republicans were quiet, at least in public, as controversy swirled around Howard.
Calls Monday morning to state Reps. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota — Howard’s campaign treasurer — and Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, were not returned. Also not returning calls and/or emails included Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who briefly ran for the House District 73 seat before dropping out and endorsing Howard; the Manatee County Republican Party; and the Republican Party of Sarasota County.
A representative of Pat Neal, CEO of Neal Communities and former Florida state senator, did call the Bradenton Herald, after a reporter called Neal, saying he was out of the state at meetings and would not be available Monday. Neal donated $1,000 to Howard’s campaign on April 30, according to campaign finance records.
A representative of state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, returned a call to the Bradenton Herald, but said Galvano was not available for comment.
Howard, 46, said she was born in St. Petersburg but moved to Ohio where her father had a job as a stone mason. She attended Miami University, but her claims of graduating with a degree have been challenged by the school. She now lives in Lakewood Ranch with her husband, Ian, who is a Navy veteran, according to a questionnaire she filled out for the Bradenton Herald. Together they own an International Medical Trade Show, Immexls, and the website Immexils.com, and said they have five local full-time employees.
(Bradenton Herald staff writers Mark Young and Samantha Putterman contributed to this report.)