A federal jury on Thursday found the director of a Lee County charter school guilty of two counts of embezzling hundreds of thousands – possibly $1 million – in federal funds that should have gone to buy lunches and supplies for students.
The fraud lasted from 2007 to 2013, when the school was operated in Bishopville and then in Sumter by Benita Dinkins-Robinson, 40, prosecutors told the jury during a three-week trial. She was convicted by the eight-woman, four-man jury after three hours of deliberation that began Wednesday evening.
Late Thursday, the jury also ruled that Dinkins-Robinson had to forfeit $750,000 in annuities she bought in recent years while she was the charter school director. Dinkins-Robinson will also forfeit the value of her share in a Camden house, the jury ruled.
Although the school was called the Mary L. Dinkins Academy of Higher Learning, the only thing high about the school was the amount of federal money Dinkins-Robinson surreptitiously transferred from school coffers to four shell companies she controlled, assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday told the jury in closing arguments.
Federal prosecutors did not identify a specific amount of federal funds that Dinkins-Robinson had converted to her own use, but Holliday presented figures from an FBI investigation showing it was likely hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly more than $1 million.
“She got rich off the school,” Holliday told the jury in closing arguments Wednesday. He also presented evidence she had employed her brother and two sons at the school and had a business relationship with one of her board members whereby she used federal funds to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of annuities for herself.
After the verdicts, Dinkins-Robinson said her faith was comforting her.
“All is well, God is still in control. We fight not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places,” she told a reporter, quoting the Bible’s book of Ephesians.
The verdicts climaxed a trial that began before U.S. Judge Terry Wooten three weeks ago. Wooten did not hold trial for several days due to weather and scheduling conflicts.
Throughout the trial, Dinkins-Robinson asserted her innocence. She took the witness stand for about six hours Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, testifying that she had legitimately earned the hundreds of thousands of dollars the FBI found in her bank accounts and that some $750,000 worth of annuities she had purchased in recent years were lawfully hers.
During the trial, Holliday grilled her about 10 missing boxes of invoices that covered the school’s operation over a five-year period.
FBI agent Julie Bitzel, the government’s lead investigator, testified that she had tried for months to get the invoices but neither Dinkins-Robinson nor her school board ever made them available.
“If she (Dinkins-Robinson) felt like these invoices were legitimate, she should have brought them in,” Holliday said.
The money that Dinkins-Robinson stole came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture children’s nutrition programs and U.S. Department of Education funds, evidence showed.
Federal lunch money “was spent on trips, eating out with friends and family – everything but food for children, Holliday told the jury.
One set of victims was taxpayers, who trust their public officials to spend money in ways that are beneficial to the community, Holliday said.
But Dinkins-Robinson’s schoolchildren were the real victims, he said.
These were children in Bishopville, “an impoverished, bad-luck community ... kids who didn’t have the time to be set back by people stealing money from their school,” Holliday said.
During the trial, the defense put up some 20 witnesses. The prosecution put on 13, some who testified children would often go hungry at school because there was no food. In those cases, children had to wait until pizza was brought to the school.
The more low-income children were enrolled, the more federal funds the school received. Testimony indicated some 140-150 students were enrolled much of the time.
The Dinkins school was a member 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.
Dinkins-Robinson was indicted in May 2014, two years after the state Charter School District board voted to stop all funding to the school because of reports of financial irregularities.
Holliday was pleased with the verdict.
“She is a corrupt woman who stole money from taxpayers and also the kids in her school,” Holliday said.