Federal Judge Terry Wooten has ordered former Lee County charter school director Benita Dinkins-Robinson to report to prison Tuesday to start a three-and-a-half year sentence.
Wooten’s order likely will end a weeks-long effort by Dinkins-Robinson, 40, a mother of two school-age children, to stay out of prison.
Instead, the former Bishopville public charter school director is to report to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, W. Va. That prison was chosen by the federal Bureau of Prisons as the best facility for her.
The prison is a minimum security facility housing some 1,200 female inmates, most of whom are serving time for non-violent offenses. Financial fraudster Martha Stewart served time there in the early 2000s. It has no barbed wire fences, and some have nicknamed it, “Camp Cupcake.”
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After a trial in March in Columbia, a federal jury found Dinkins-Robinson guilty of two counts of embezzling government funds. In August, after hearing FBI and government prosecutors present evidence that the total she took was some $1.5 million, Wooten sentenced her to 42 months in prison.
In orders last week with the U.S. Clerk of Court, Wooten rejected Dinkins-Robinson’s allegation of jury misconduct during the trial and rejected her bid to stay out of prison while her case is appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The defendant is directed to report to Federal Prison Camp Alderson on (Tuesday),” Wooten ruled.
During Dinkins-Robinson’s nine-hour sentencing hearing in August, Wooten indicated he had little patience with her arguments for a light sentence.
“She was supposed to help children who were needy, children who had a lot to gain from a good education,” Wooten said before pronouncing her sentence. Stressing the children were low-income, Wooten said, “This is a very serious matter.”
Wooten has a record of giving prison time to public officials who betray the public trust. Earlier this year, he rejected a proposed plea deal that would have spared former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts a prison sentence and ordered Metts to spend time behind bars. Metts had been convicted of bribery in a scheme to let illegal Mexican immigrants out of the Lexington County jail.
During Dinkins-Robinson’s March trial and August sentencing hearing, FBI case agent Julie Bitzell testified about how the former educator siphoned some $1.5 million in federal funds from the public school account and transferred it to corporations she set up and then to her own retirement accounts. She also spent the money on transactions at places like Harrah’s Hotel and Casino, Victoria’s Secret and Carnival Cruise Lines, the FBI investigation showed.
Dinkins-Robinson had refused repeated FBI requests to produce invoices to show how she spent money, telling the FBI that her companies were private businesses and she didn’t have to tell federal investigators what she did with the money, Bitzel testified at the trial and hearing.
The FBI’s investigation covered five years of spending at the school, from about 2007-12, during which time it received more than $5 million in state and federal funds.
Dinkins-Robinson’s case focused attention on the lack of financial scrutiny and oversight at the state’s charter schools, which were established as a way to give parents more choice. Dinkins-Robinson was able to move millions in public money around with little accountability. Her school in Bishopville, the Mary Dinkins Academy, which later moved to Sumter County, was set up to help disadvantaged children.
The federal 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.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Winston Holliday, who told the judge that Dinkins-Robinson was a “money launderer,” and Benjamin Gardner prosecuted the case. Lawyers for Dinkins-Robinson were Eleazer Carter and Johnny Watson, both of Columbia.