License scams lead to prison sentences, new protocols

Federal prosecutors have secured numerous guilty pleas in connection with separate credentialing scams that occurred over several years in multiple states.  

Lamont Godfrey, the former chief administrator for Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy (MAMA) pleaded guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft stemming from a multiyear counterfeit merchant mariner credential scam operated from the Norfolk, Va., training center. In August, he was sentenced to 45 months in federal prison. 

“By enabling a group of mariners to circumvent the Coast Guard’s credentialing protocols through fraud, this individual and his accomplices undermined our credentialing system and threatened our waterways,” said Rear Admiral John Mauger, Coast Guard assistant commandant for prevention policy. “We are confident this ruling sends a strong message that the U.S. government will not tolerate these types of acts and will vigorously take action against such misconduct.”

Court documents indicate Godfrey, 43, and multiple co-conspirators devised a scheme to create and sell counterfeit merchant mariner credentials. Eugene Johnson of Manteca, Calif.; Shunmanique Willis of Richmond, Texas; and Alonzo Williams of Pineville, La., were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 to 29 months for helping find buyers for the bogus certifications. 

The men “offered to provide authentic looking, but counterfeit and fraudulent, [MAMA] certificates to these mariners without the mariners actually attending the class as required by Coast Guard regulation to obtain the credential,” the document continued. 

Investigators determined the four men sold at least 1,000 fraudulent certificates between July 2016 and December 2019 to at least 250 mariners. They earned more than $394,000 through the scam, from which Godfrey made $249,000. The conspirators also gave buyers instructions on how to upload the fraudulent documents onto Coast Guard systems.

MAMA President Ed Nanartowich, a retired U.S. Navy captain and retired master of Military Sealift Command ships, credited the Coast Guard Investigative Service for breaking up the operation. 

The scam operated by Godfrey and the fellow co-conspirators is not the only one of its kind. In November 2020, 31 people were indicted in a seven-year score-boosting scam from a Coast Guard regional exam center in Mandeville, La. According to an indictment, credentialling specialist Dorothy Smith took bribes to inflate exam scores, which resulted in applicants illegally obtaining licenses for high-level positons. At least 24 people have pleaded guilty in the case, including Willis and Williams, who also were involved in the credentialling scam in Norfolk. As of this fall, the case against Smith was still pending.

Federal officials are working to identify mariners who achieved frauduent credentials, Coast Guard spokesman Kurt Frederickson said. Anyone found with a fraudulent credential must forfeit the document and also could face charges. 

The Coast Guard did not elaborate on its preventive measures to deter these kinds of scams in the future. But Nanartowich suggests redundancy would be good deterrent moving forward. 

“Knowing that a fraud scheme could be orchestrated completely out of sight of the legitimate operations of any school gives pause to the community of maritime schools to review their procedures in certificate production,” he said. “Companies that I have talked with on the subject are reviewing their procedures and implementing meaningful change.”

Maritime training providers that teach Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) courses must now have a Quality Standard System (QSS) in place. MAMA’s procedures now include two-person integrity on certificate production, as well as redundant verification of rosters and attendance records cross-checked against financial records.