Friday, February 27, 2015

South Carolina Woman Accused Of Embezzling $1 Million+ From Charter School In Vendor Fraud Scheme; Lived Lavishly

From The State on 2/25/2015:

Federal prosecutors Wednesday said a former public charter school director used shell companies to embezzle more than $1 million in federal funds provided to the school for food and educational purposes.

U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday alleged that 40-year-old Benita Dinkins-Robinson, director of the former Mary L. Dinkins Higher Learning Academy in Bishopville, siphoned off money using four shell companies – J and J Contracting, T and E Catering, New Age Computers and Project Reach – that accepted payments of school money.

The school was a part of the S.C. Public Charter School District – a growing group of 31 public schools with 17,000 students and 500 teachers across South Carolina in more than a dozen counties. The Legislature created the statewide charter school district in 2007 as a way to empower parents and others to set up public schools with different missions. The Dinkins school was closed in 2013 after the charter district voted to stop its funding.

The Dinkins school was in rural Lee County and qualified for Title I funding, which allowed it to receive money for food and education for the students from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Education.

But testimony from Janice Crocco, a former 5th grade teacher at the Dinkins school, suggested that the federal funds never benefited the students.

Crocco, who worked for the school for a little over five months beginning in December 2010, said students would often go without meals at lunch because there was no food. In those instances, students would have to wait until pizza was ordered at the school just before they were dismissed.
Crocco also said the school’s overall cleanliness and organization was in disarray. She said when she would take her 12 students to the bathroom, she often brought toilet paper with her because there wasn’t any in the doorless stalls. She also said that Dinkins-Robinson was at the school only two to three days out of the week and would often not show up for scheduled faculty meetings.

Holliday alleged that Dinkins-Robinson would use the funding from the government to pay for a catering company, T and E Catering, to provide food for students. However, Eleazor Carter, Dinkins-Robinson’s attorney, said that while his client was a business partner in the catering company, the state’s charter school district approved of their services. Carter also conceded that Dinkins-Robinson was a founding member of Project Reach and that her brother owned New Age Computers.

Along with large cash withdrawals from the school’s account, Holliday said Dinkins-Robinson would make out checks to pay rent for the building in which the school operated that were in excess of the rent amount due. He alleged that she would spend the extra money on lavish vacations and shopping sprees.

The Dinkins school at first operated under the Lee County School District. It asked to be authorized as a charter school in Sumter County, reporting to the state charter school district, after receiving pushback and alleged harassment from Lee County, according to Carter.

Clay Eaton, a witness for the prosecution and a former public relations director for the charter school district, said when he inspected the school between 2010 and 2012 after it applied to be authorized by the charter district, he noticed the school would report inflated students numbers to the charter district, sometimes by the dozens.

Each public school and public charter school receives funding from state and federal entities on a per-pupil basis. If a public school has a large amount of special needs students or a large student population in general, it gets a higher per-pupil amount from the federal government.

U.S. Judge Terry Wooten dismissed Wednesday’s hearing early in light of the winter storm moving through the state. Wooten said the next trial session will be held Friday, weather permitting.

Update (3/12/2015):  Benita Dinkins-Robinson found guilty by a jury of embezzling at least $750,000 and as much as $1 million.  Read an update of the story here.


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