MIAMI (CBS4) – CBS4 News has learned a supposedly non-profit, after-school tutoring company, created to help at risk children, is under criminal investigation for allegedly bilking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Miami Dade School district.
That company, Divine Sports Inc, and its owner, Erika Robinson, are suspected of committing both fraud and identity theft.
And whose identity did they steal?
The identity of the very children they were supposed to be helping.
Sources familiar with the investigation told CBS4 Investigator Jim DeFede, Divine would take the names of actual students at Miami Central High School, Miami Northwestern High School, and Golden Glades Elementary and then falsely claim to be tutoring them so they could be reimbursed by the district.
Divine was paid up to $70 an hour for each student they allegedly tutored. So far investigators have found dozens of what they are calling “ghost” students.
Robinson’s attorney, Larry Handfield, said he has been told by prosecutors that Robinson will be arrested as early as this week.
“I’m not speaking to the level of whether this was deliberate deceit or whether this was an issue of negligence,” Handfield said of the allegations. “I do think my client is very, very disappointed and upset about it.”
Handfield said Robinson failed to adequately keep track of the money. “Clearly some mistakes were made that probably started off innocently,” Handfield explained.
Sources tell CBS4 News it went well beyond sloppy bookkeeping. Divine officials actually created bogus progress reports for each of their ghost students – showing the district how well the children were doing.
“And that brings us to where we are now,” Handfield explained, “issues of receiving payment for services that were not totally provided.”
The precise amount of the money allegedly stolen is unclear, but both Handfield and sources familiar with the case place the alleged amount in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The 18-month investigation is being led by the Miami Dade Inspector General’s Office and the Miami Dade State Attorney’s Office. The U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General is also involved in the case.
The story of Divine illustrates a serious problem with a federal program known as SES – or Supplemental Educational Services. Under SES, private companies are paid to tutor children from low-income families.
The program is part of the federal No Child Left Behind program. Twenty percent of every federal dollar allocated to a school district by the federal government must be spent on SES programs.
This year alone, the federal government will spend approximately $650 million on SES programs, including nearly $19 million in Miami Dade County.
Several weeks ago, Miami Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho testified in Washington before the House Education committee on the questionable merits of the tutoring program. He said his biggest problem with the program is that there is no oversight by the local school district.
“It is very hard for us to know what is going on and incredibly difficult for us to opine to parents as to what’s best for their kids,” he testified.
Carvalho complained the district is unable to determine if the money is being properly spent or if it is even helping any of the kids.
“With very little accountability and a great deal of money those are two ingredients that spell out disaster,” he said.
That would certainly seem to be the case with Divine. The company was created in 2005 to provide sporting activities for kids, but soon turned to the far more lucrative field of federally funded tutoring.
In 2008-2009, the first year it operated as a tutoring company it made just $6,975.
And then in 2009-2010 Divine received $951,460 for students they were allegedly tutoring – an increase of more than 14,000 percent from the previous year.
Last year, as state and county investigators began questioning Divine, the company still billed the school district $445,250. The school district has refused to pay it.
Divine’s website claims the company is active in dozens of school districts in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, but Handfield said the company is not active anywhere in the country.
Robinson, the founder and owner of Divine, refused repeated requests for an interview and when a reporter visited Divine’s corporate offices in North Dade, workers slammed the door shut.
The company’s corporate officers also refused to speak. Handfield said they had nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the company. He said Robinson is prepared to accept full responsibility for her mistakes.
“I am happy to say she is not trying to dodge the situation,” Handfield said, “and she is owning up and accepts full responsibility for anything that may have went wrong,”