August 31, 2015

Former charter school official sentenced to 42 months for embezzling

A former charter school director was sentenced to three and a half years in prison Tuesday, five months after a jury found her guilty of embezzling more than $1.5 million in government funds.

Prosecutors accused Benita Dinkins-Robinson of diverting federal funds that should have gone towards the Mary Dinkins Academy of Higher Learning she operated from 2007 until 2013. The FBI said Dinkins-Robinson had instead redirected $1.56 million in Department of Agriculture student lunch funds and Department of Education monies to a network of shell corporations she controlled.

She must also repay $1.5 million in restitution. She had been facing a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The State newspaper reports deputy marshals were called into the sentencing hearing at one point Tuesday, after Dinkins-Robinson’s brother made angry statements about a testifying FBI case agent that court officials viewed as threatening. The FBI said it had been blocked by Dinkins-Robinson refusing to show them the school’s financial records.

Tuesday’s hearing also marked the first time investigators listed a total amount they accuse the former principal of laundering. Prevous court documents had only listed the number as greater than $1 million.

An attorney representing Dinkins-Robinson argued his client was trying to run the school, but did not understand the state’s financial laws. However, U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten said the school official could not show a legitimate use of the $1.56 million, particularly $760,000 in annuities that she purchased.

The Bishopville school’s charter was revoked by the South Carolina Public Charter School District in 2012 and the district asled the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate reports of fraud. The FBI later took over the investigation. But the school reopened without the state’s blessing in a Sumter church as a countersuit made its way through the court system. A judge ordered it closed for good in March 2013.

Upstate mayor suspended from office after indictment

Mayor Rodney Turner (Image: LymanSC.Gov)

Mayor Rodney Turner (Image: LymanSC.Gov)

Governor Nikki Haley on Monday suspended from office the mayor of Lyman — a small town about eight miles west of Spartanburg.

The order suspended 58-year-old Rodney Turner after his indictment last week on wiretapping and misconduct charges. Among other accusations, State Law Enforcement Division warrants say Turner illegally set up recording equipment so he could track town employees’ conversations between February 21 and August 14, 2014.

The South Carolina Constitution gives a governor power to remove an elected town official if that official is indicted on a crime involving “moral turpitude.” The suspension is in effect until Turner is either acquitted or convicted. [Read more…]

Five judges seek open seat on SC Supreme Court

SC Supreme Court (File)

SC Supreme Court (File)

Five judges are vying for an open slot on South Carolina’s highest court.

The Judicial Merit Selection Commission this week released its list of candidates for the South Carolina Supreme Court. The five are running for a seat that will become available when Chief Justice Jean Toal steps down in December after reaching the mandatory retirement age. State legislators have elected Associate Justice Costa Pleicones as Toal’s replacement. The move creates the first open seat on the state Supreme Court since 2009.

The JMSC is a legislative-controlled commission that vets nominees for open judicial positions. They will hold hearings in November to interview the candidates and will do background checks to endure each is qualified. The names will then be forwarded to the full House and Senate for next year’s elections. Lawmakers will also vote on choosing the next chief justice, as Pleicones will reach the mandatory retirement age in 2016.

South Carolina is one of just two states where lawmakers elect judges.

The three judges from South Carolina’s Court of Appeals are Chief Judge John Few, Judge Aphrodite Konduros, and Judge H. Bruce Williams.

Circuit Judge D. Craig Brown of Florence is also in the running, as is Chief Judge of the state Administrative Law Court Ralph King Anderson III.

Man sentenced to 40 years for paralyzing USC student with stray bullet

Family of a University of South Carolina student paralyzed with a stray bullet nearly two years ago say they are thankful her shooter was sentenced to 40 total years in prison on Monday.

A state circuit judge sentenced Michael Juan Smith on Monday, shortly after a jury found him guilty of attempted murder and four separate gun charges. Prosecutors accused Smith of firing at rival gang members in Columbia’s Five Points bar district back in October 2013. A bullet struck then 19-year-old Martha Childress as she waited for a taxi nearby. The bullet paralyzed Childress from the waist down.

Childress did not wish to speak with reporters after the trial, instead her uncle Jim Carpenter acted as the family’s spokesman. “The family wanted me to express our deep gratitude to the people in the solicitor’s office, to the investigators, to the law enforcement, everybody who had a part in the successful prosecution,” he said. “We appreciate the way the trial was run. We appreciate the efforts of the jurors. We’re pleased with the verdict, of course, and we’re pleased with the sentence.”

Smith had testified in his own defense, saying he heard gunshots and feared for his life before he opening fire. His attorneys also pointed to a flash that briefly appeared on business surveillance video, which they said was another gun firing. But prosecutors accused Smith of changing his story on what happened that night and said there was no evidence anyone other than Smith had used a gun.

Circuit Judge Robert Hood sentenced Smith to 30 years for the attempted murder charge, and a pair of consecutive five year sentences on the weapons-related charges. Smith is already serving a 10-year federal sentence for possessing a gun as a previously-convicted felon. The two years he has already served will count towards his total sentence.

Public safety agency spent $43k in overtime pay during Confederate flag protests

A BPS officer watches a July 10 ceremony removing the Confederate battle flag (File)

A BPS officer watches a July 10 ceremony removing the Confederate battle flag (File)

New estimates made public on Friday show that it cost South Carolina about $80,000 to pay overtime for public safety officers in the aftermath of the June 17 Emanuel AME Church shootings and subsequent Confederate battle flag protests.

The Department of Public Safety provided the estimates to The Associated Press documenting the personnel costs of providing security at the victims’ funerals and during weeks of demonstrations at the Statehouse. The estimates covered the time between June 21 and July 18 — from the day before Gov. Nikki Haley called for the Confederate flag to be removed from Statehouse grounds through the day that opposing groups rallied at the Statehouse.

However, these totals are just for the agency’s Bureau of Public Safety officers that protect the Capitol. It does not include Highway Patrol troopers, State Law Enforcement Division agents, Department of Natural Resources officers who also provided security during the competing July 18 protests by extremist groups linked to the KKK and New Black Panther Party. Columbia Police, Richland County Sheriff’s deputies, and other law enforcement agencies also worked the event, which broke down into minor violence when fights broke out during the afternoon. Five people were arrested at the time, with other arrests coming over the next few weeks after investigators examined video.

The reporting covers two pay periods for BPS officers assigned to either the Statehouse or the funerals of the nine victims killed at the historic black church June 17. The department said it could not determine overtime for the day of the rallies. However, the agency reported $34,00 in overtime pay between July 5 (the day before legislators started debate on the flag) and the July 18 protests.

The violent rallies (and subsequent criticism from lawmakers) prompted the state Department of Administration to change how it reviews requests to use Statehouse grounds. The agency’s General Services Division said it will seek input from both the State Law Enforcement Division and the Department of Public Safety before notifying groups requesting use of the grounds.

DPS said it cost the agency $44,300 to pay the extra time for officers who provided security for the funerals of Emanuel AME victims and President Barack Obama’s visit to Charleston from June 21-July 4.