WASHINGTON ― No authority has publicly implicated him in the embezzlement scandal enveloping his university, but by Wednesday afternoon Tyrone Hankerson Jr. had already become a meme — “Joanne the Scammer” for the collegiate set.
He was an irresistible target for his fellow students at Howard University and the rest of on the internet. Fur coats. Gucci bags. Prada slacks. On social media, the law student and onetime student employee in Howard’s financial aid office flaunted his love of high-end fashion on campus, where he allegedly drove a Range Rover, and his glitzy trips abroad. When a pseudonymously written Medium post mentioned Hankerson Jr. in connection with a scheme whereby university officials had allegedly embezzled $1 million in financial aid money, it was all too perfect.
The story claimed that Hankerson Jr. had received thousands in ill-gotten aid. He released a statement to ABC News on Wednesday proclaiming his innocence.
During a sit-down interview with journalist Roland Martin on Friday, Hankerson Jr. and his lawyer, James L. Walker Jr., maintained his innocence once again and offered more details on the situation. (You can watch the interview above.)
They said Hankerson Jr. was a student worker in Howard’s financial aid office from 2011 to 2015. His time there ended with the completion of his undergraduate degree. The two men took credit for the removal of the Medium post, which they said defamed Hankerson Jr.’s character. (The post, written under the name “Veritas 1867,” was suspended sometime on Wednesday.) They also said that Hankerson Jr. was not one of the six employees fired from the financial aid office.
While Hankerson Jr. said he had received at least $200,000 in aid during his undergraduate career, he denied receiving $429,000 ― the amount claimed in the Medium story. Walker added that his client had gotten financial aid — in the form of stipends, scholarships and grants — over the course of seven years, not four as was suggested in the Medium post. Hankerson Jr. also denied driving a Range Rover.
But even before his public defense, Hankerson Jr. had already been convicted in the high court of meme justice and sentenced to hours and hours of beclownment.
In a SoundCloud audio file dug up by one Twitter user, a person the user suggests is Hankerson Jr. raps: “Drop a pic on Instagram / They ain’t liking but they lookin’ … It’s mad niggas out here tryna dress like me.”
Someone even put a scammer-themed playlist on iTunes.
On Wednesday, Howard University President Wayne Frederick confirmed that financial aid officials had indeed misappropriated funds earmarked for low-income students between 2007 and 2016. How much, exactly, he wouldn’t say. Six university employees had been fired, he added, although he did not name them. In an interview with ABC 7, Frederick said the university would not be pressing charges.
Hankerson Jr. did not respond to multiple HuffPost requests for comment sent to his personal email address. HuffPost also reached out to Walker, his lawyer, who on Thursday sent along the same statement given to ABC News.
“Please know that I have done nothing illegal or wrong,” Hankerson Jr. said. “When the truth comes out, it will be confirmed that I followed all rules and protocol with the approval of the, then, financial aid officers in any grants, scholarships or awards given to me as a student who attended class all year round and traveled abroad.”
When asked about Hankerson Jr.’s alleged role in the misappropriation of aid money, a university spokesperson focused more on the student’s having been named in the Medium story. “There has been no authorized disclosure by the University of any information related to Mr. Hankerson Jr., nonetheless we are concerned about this situation,” the spokesperson told HuffPost. “We are taking a close look to see if we can determine the source of information published about him.”
Citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the spokesperson declined to make “any comments about the protected information of Mr. Hankerson Jr. or any other Howard University student.” The university’s office of financial aid and the law school’s media relations contacts did not respond to requests for comment about Hankerson Jr.
But students have coalesced loudly around the issue: calling for the president’s resignation, rallying at the flagpole and staging a sit-in in the administration building — which includes the financial aid and president’s offices.
One student, who also declined to speak to HuffPost, tweeted on Wednesday what appears to be an email exchange with Hankerson Jr. (whose name is underlined in red).
The student asked for continued financial aid. Hankerson Jr., in his capacity as a financial aid employee, allegedly replied saying the university had utilized its financial aid budget for the academic year and couldn’t help the student. The email is dated Feb. 2, 2015.
Howard, like many other historically black colleges and universities, has battled with high-stakes financial problems over the past several years.
A letter written by university trustee Renee Higginbotham-Brooks in 2013 stressed her concern that the school was “in genuine trouble” due to a decrease in federal aid, a lack of “infrastructure for fundraising” and a smaller pool of potential students who could obtain financial aid, meaning more students who opted for cheaper state schools. The financial aid office meanwhile has often delayed or messed up aid packages for students. A 2013 change to the criteria for obtaining a Parent PLUS Loan caused enrollment in HBCUs nationwide to drop significantly. Howard lost about 585 students. And students have long been frustrated with the state of housing at the university, including the cost of it all.
For now, the social media backlash seems to center on Hankerson Jr., the guy with the fashionista posts that now seem to taunt those who struggled for aid.
Aside from the memes, Hankerson Jr.’s personal website and social media presence ― including his YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram accounts ― have been scrubbed from the internet, with a few exceptions. Hankerson Jr. was featured as a model on the fashion blog Deserted In Urban in 2015. He blogged for HuffPost in 2016 and was quoted in two stories in which he discussed the burdens of student loan debt.
“For many of my classmates, their families simply do not have the financial resources to pay for college,” he said at a 2015 Howard forum on student loan debt. “What I have witnessed in my role are determined students who try their hardest to find a way through.”
“They sometimes work nearly 40 hours a week with full course loads; their parents take on loan debt that they cannot truly afford to repay; they sometimes get denied for Parents PLUS Loans and find aunts and cousins and grandparents to co-sign,” he continued. “They search high and low for scholarships, they take classes over the summer at cheaper rates so they can graduate on time, they take semesters off, and they come back. And sometimes, when all has failed them, they are left with no option but to give up.”
This story has been updated with Hankerson Jr.’s interview with Roland Martin.