A week ago, Brenda Banks cruised to victory for District 1 of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, doubling the vote total of her nearest competitor.
Wednesday, the 60-year-old Omaha woman was indicted on eight counts of wire fraud and one count of bank fraud in connection with allegations that she misused at least $202,000 of the $464,000 in grant money intended for her central Omaha training facility. Banks is the longtime director of the nonprofit Cross Training Center, 5030 N. 72nd St., which specializes in ready-to-work programs for former incarcerated people or the impoverished or adults who have struggled with addiction.
A federal grand jury, guided by prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Nebraska, alleged that Banks altered the checks with correction fluid and made them look as if they had been used for legitimate purposes under terms of grants that she had received from governmental agencies, including the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Those PPP loans were designed as a bridge to help organizations stay running during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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In a brief phone call with The World-Herald, Banks said the allegations were false.
“None of that is true at all,” she said. “It was all legitimately used.”
In a recent interview with strictlybusinessomaha.com, Banks said her 23-year-long leadership of Cross Training Center is “driven by God’s declaration that He has a plan to give every person hope and a future. Faith has always been the foundation of my vision for this organization to help individuals find their paths toward success.”
Banks, a Republican, defeated three other candidates for the Learning Community in the May primary. Her most recent Facebook post displays photos from Donald Trump’s rally in Greenwood, Nebraska, for Charles W. Herbster, who was running for Nebraska governor. After a forecast of storms postponed the rally from a Friday to a Sunday, Banks posted a photo from the event with the caption: “I will be returning on Sunday!! Two parties in one weekend!” She also hosted an Omaha event for Herbster and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway in August 2021 at Cross Training Center.
In another Facebook entry, she posted a viral meme that asked what you would do if someone stole $10 from an account that had $86,400 in it. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Banks wrote. “Move on!”
Federal prosecutors allege Banks’ actions didn’t involve small stuff. Banks, who has no record, faces up to 20 years in prison on each wire fraud count and up to 30 years in prison on the bank fraud count.
The indictment says most of the alleged fraud involved grants for recycling of electronics such as computers and for vehicles that were used to train prospective mechanics.
According to the indictment:
From mid-April 2018 to the end of 2019, Banks submitted applications and other documents to the Nebraska Environmental Trust to obtain money by “means of false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises.” She received $220,000 from the trust to “manage electronic collection and recycling events.” She was required to submit documentation but instead sent along “altered check images and fictitious invoices.”
Federal investigators listed $153,000 in fraudulent receipts from that period.
Around the same time period, April 2018 to August 2019, Banks submitted “several fraudulently altered documents” to another state agency — the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.
“Banks fraudulently altered images of checks by ‘whiting out’ the names of other entities or organizations,” the grand jury wrote. “Banks then presented the images of the altered checks to the NDEE so that the NDEE would believe Banks was using (the) funds for purposes that were authorized by the grant agreements when, in fact, she was not.”
Banks also submitted payroll documents to make it seem like her agency had “paid certain employees ... when in fact, it had not,” the indictment says.
It is unclear what the indictment will mean for her general election prospects. Banks said she was unaware of the indictment until contacted by a reporter. She is scheduled to make her first appearance in federal court in mid-June.