A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced a former charter public school director to 31/2 years in prison for stealing $1.56 million in federal money that should have gone to help educate low-income children in poverty-stricken areas of Lee County.
“She was supposed to help children who were needy children, who had a lot to gain from a good education,” U.S. Judge Terry Wooten said just before pronouncing sentence on Benita Dinkins-Robinson shortly after 6 p.m., near the end of a nine-hour hearing at the federal courthouse in Columbia.
Dinkins-Robinson was found guilty during a trial in March that was watched by many interested in charter schools because they are free from most public school instructional regulations but can still receive public money.
“This is a very serious matter,” Wooten said, repeating the sentence several times just before he revealed how long he would send the 40-year-old, longtime educator to prison.
Only minutes before, a court official had pushed a silent alarm to summon emergency help as Dinkins-Robinson’s older brother and his fiancee spoke out angrily, accusing – without offering any evidence – lead FBI case agent Julie Bitzel of perjury in the case.
A half-dozen burly U.S. deputy marshals in cargo pants and boots soon entered the courtroom, and there were were no more menacing statements. Wooten warned everyone not to make trouble, either “in court or outside the courthouse.”
In court testimony in March, Bitzel spent hours on the stand, detailing how Dinkins-Robinson had set up a network of shell corporations.
Over five years, more than $5 million in state and federal funds flowed into Dinkins-Robinson’s charter school in Bishopville, and she siphoned $1.56 million of that money out to those corporations, Bitzell testified Tuesday. It was the first time the government specified a total amount stolen.
During her investigation, 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 told Wooten.
The jury also heard assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday produce evidence that Dinkins-Robinson had – apparently using the money she put in the shell corporations – bought some $760,000 of life insurance policies from Allianz, a Florida financial security company.
Because the case involved a complex financial crime and because Dinkins-Robinson’s lawyers objected to numerous issues, the sentencing hearing lasted longer than in most similar cases.
Tuesday’s hearing was filled with arguments over how much money Dinkins-Robbins had stolen, descriptions of her shell companies, how much prison she should get and emotional statements from her supporters and family members pleading with the judge not to give her prison time.
One longtime friend, Betty Addison, told the judge that when Dinkins-Robinson was a child in a family without much education, she begged her mother to send her to Sunday school and then became an outstanding student in high school who liked to help younger students. Dinkins-Robinson then graduated from Coker College, becoming a teacher and principal.
“She taught children other teachers did not want to teach,” Addison said, describing how Dinkins-Robinson set up the charter school in Bishopville, where she had grown up, specifically to help the disadvantaged. “She’s touched so many lives.”
One of Dinkins-Robinson’s lawyers, Eleazor Carter, told the judge that his client had tried to take on too much in setting up the charter school, running afoul of the law when she got into financial areas.
“Her lack of understanding got her in trouble,” Carter said. “She didn’t come to this situation with the intent to start to embezzle.”
The hearing also 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 apparently able to move millions of 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.
At the hearing’s end, a weeping Dinkins-Robbins stood and begged the judge to give her a sentence that would allow her to stay close to her children, ages 8 and about 14.
“I want to be a momma, I will do anything the court says to do,” she told Wooten. “Allow me to be a momma, that’s all I’m asking. I’m no flight risk, I’m not a threat to society. I have dedicated my life to society.”
On Tuesday, Holliday was more specific than in March, describing Dinkins-Robinson’s money transfers from the school account to corporations she had set up to do business with the school, in whole or in part, in essence paying herself to supply or service her own school while still drawing a salary.
Dinkins-Robinson was a money launderer, Holliday told Wooten.
“We didn’t charge her with money laundering, but that’s what she did,” Holliday said.
Wooten agreed, saying despite all the explanations Dinkins-Robinson had given about what she did with the money she transferred from her school, “The government has shown that money was withdrawn and there was no legitimate uses for that money.”
Embezzlement was the only explanation of how she was able to put $760,000 in retirement Allianz policies, Wooten said. “She had no personal income that could justify that amount.”
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.