One year and one day in prison is the sentence for a St. Paul woman who stole nearly $500,000 out of the $1.7 million in government grant funding awarded to two nonprofit programs for poor Minnesotans that she founded.
Along with her prison time, the sentencing of Roberta Barnes, 59, in federal court in Minneapolis on Wednesday includes two years of supervised release after she serves her prison time and restitution that remains to be negotiated.
Prosecutors said some of the more than $480,000 in grant money that Barnes skimmed from Agape House for Mothers and Sierra Young Family Institute went for many personal purchases for herself and others.
Those purchases included $731 for handbags by Miche, $247 to a designer jean retailer, $713 for sleep apnea supplies and equipment, $273 to the St. Paul impound lot and $6,050 to pay her son’s rent. She also admitted in her plea agreement in December 2014 that she diverted some money for her mortgage and car payments.
Some of the funds she received came from the Minnesota Health Department under a program aimed at preventing and reducing teen pregnancies, particularly among minority populations. She also got money from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency under its initiative to end long-term homelessness.
In a court filing shortly before sentencing, prosecutors argued for a prison term of 21 to 27 months.
“The money she stole should have been used to help people escape from a cycle of poverty,” the prosecution said in the filing, “and instead the defendant paid her expenses and gave money to her family members.”
Barnes’ defense countered in its filing that she should be sentenced to no more than six months of home monitoring and 100 hours of community service, saying that “she hopes that the court will examine the many years she has spent providing much-needed help to the young people of her community. ... Because of Ms. Barnes’s age and the significant collateral consequences that she will face by virtue of this felony conviction — her only criminal history — a noncustodial sentence is just and sufficient.”
The defense document went on to explain that Barnes stole from the St. Paul-based nonprofits, which are no longer in operation, as her “hard work and good intentions gave way to her being overwhelmed by the responsibility of her work, and [she made] poor choices in the face of that stress.”
A Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s report in 2012 uncovered much of the fraud. The U.S. attorney’s office was conducting a parallel investigation at that time.