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The Bishopville school’s charter was revoked by the South Carolina Public Charter School District in 2012 and the district asled the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate reports of fraud.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.