MIAMI (CBS4) – An arrest warrant was issued Thursday for the owner of Divine Sports, an after school tutoring program accused of bilking the Miami-Dade School District of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The warrant followed a CBS4 News Investigation earlier this week that showed how investigators suspected Divine and its owner, Erika Robinson, was stealing the identities of scores of children they were supposed to be helping.
The company and Robinson were charged Thursday with 45 counts of identity theft, grand theft and an organized scheme to defraud.
The warrant claims Robinson exploited children at five different schools, including Miami Central High School, Miami Northwestern High School, and Golden Glades Elementary.
According to investigators, Robinson would falsely claim to be tutoring the children so the company 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. The warrant refers to them as “phantom students.”
Robinson’s attorney, Larry Handfield, was aware his client was going to be charged.
“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.
The warrant however makes it clear the problems went well beyond sloppy bookkeeping. The warrant outlines how Divine officials actually created bogus progress reports for each of their phantom students – showing the district how well the children were doing.
The warrant claims attendance records were routinely falsified and the signatures of teachers were forged.
In those rare instances where students actually did receive after school help, the children told investigators that little actual school work took place. One child said he spent his tutoring sessions on the computer surfing the website NFL.com.
And although Divine Sports was supposed to be a non-profit business, bank records revealed that in 2010, Erika Robinson paid herself $186,000.
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 Carvahlo 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.
Carvahlo 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,”