Editor’s note: In a 27-5 party line vote Wednesday morning, the Tennessee Senate expelled Democratic State Sen. Katrina Robinson.
Editor’s note: On Jan. 20, after denying State Sen. Katrina Robinson’s request for a delay so her legal team could participate in that day’s hearing, the Republican-controlled Senate Ethics Committee voted to recommend her removal to the full Senate. Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who represents Memphis, cast the lone no vote on the five-member committee. She is the committee’s only Black and only Democratic member. The story below was published Jan. 19.
Embattled State Sen. Katrina Robinson says her colleagues are rushing to remove her from office by holding an ethics hearing before she is sentenced or has a chance to appeal her September wire fraud conviction.
The Senate Ethics Committee is scheduled to meet at 10:30 a.m. Thursday for a hearing on whether to recommend the removal of Robinson, who is one of six Democratic senators, from her District 33 seat.
“The Senate leadership’s zealous and premature efforts to remove me from office only further illustrate the true intention of this concerted attack,” Robinson said.
The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee initially charged Robinson in 2020 with 24 counts of theft and embezzlement and 24 counts of wire fraud in connection with her privately owned vocational school, The Healthcare Institute, which had received a federal grant.
The federal government alleged that between 2015 and 2019, Robinson “stole in excess of $600,000” from her own business by paying herself more than what was allowed under the federal grant terms and using school money for personal purchases.
Robinson called the charges a racist and political attack; and her legal team has called the prosecutor’s case baseless and an investigation in search of a crime.
A representative for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment on the ongoing case.
All but five of the charges were thrown out leading up to and during the trial. A jury found Robinson guilty on four of the five remaining charges, but U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl Lipman acquitted Robinson of two after the jury’s verdict. That left Robinson convicted on two charges connected to expenses totaling just over $3,400, or less than 1% of the original amount the feds accused her of mishandling.
A second indictment, unconnected to Robinson’s elected office or the federal grant, charged the senator and two co-defendants on two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, accusing them of using the school in an attempt to scam an individual. However, the prosecutors and Robinson entered a pretrial diversion agreement last month, dismissing these additional charges in exchange for a year of supervision for Robinson.
The second batch of charges and subsequent agreement were the focus of preliminary discussions on ethics hearings, according to Lt. Governor Randy McNally, the Tennessee Lookout reported.
“I think what they’re looking at is the plea agreement where she did admit to committing felonies and whether it would be up to them to make a recommendation to the full Senate,” said McNally, according to the Tennessee Lookout.
However, Robinson disputes this characterization: The diversion agreement did not require her to enter a plea or admit guilt.
Robinson argues that the case in which she was convicted isn’t final since she hasn’t been sentenced and she could still file an appeal. Her sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 3.
“Over the course of this process, we have witnessed the truth be unveiled bit by bit,” Robinson said in a statement. “There is still more to go. As we continue to fight through the legal process to get my complete and total vindication, I am committed to doing the right thing.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Ethics Committee found probable cause to remove Robinson from the senate, McNally’s spokesperson Adam Kleinheider said in a statement.
“The purpose of Thursday’s meeting is for the committee to further discuss the charges against her and her criminal conviction, allow her to present a defense and to decide whether to issue a formal recommendation to the full Senate on the matter,” Kleinheider said.
Robinson suspects the hearing is motivated by Republicans who see an opportunity to remove a political opponent. All but one of the five Senate Ethics Committee members is a white Republican man; the exception is Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who is Black, a Democrat, and represents Memphis. Robinson’s district, which is predominantly Black, mainly covers Southeast Memphis neighborhoods including Parkway Village.
Both the Shelby County Legislative Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators issued statements in support of Robinson late Wednesday afternoon.
“Any action taken by the Senate Ethics Committee prior to the court issuing a final ruling on this matter would be premature,” the county caucus said in a statement.
“An adverse and preemptive decision by this committee could also harm the citizens of the 33rd Senatorial District and Shelby County, who duly elected Senator Robinson to serve their interests at the Tennessee General Assembly.”
Said the Black legislative caucus: “The members of the TBCSL express our unequivocal and unwavering support for Senator Robinson to be heard and truly appreciate her service to the State of Tennessee.”
The committee chairman Sen. Ferrell Haile will proceed with Thursday’s hearing despite Robinson and her legal team requesting 30 days to prepare, saying she received less than a week’s notice of the meeting.
“My counsel asked for an extension of time, due to the fact that we were only served notice … days before the hearing and my legal team’s schedule would not allow their participation on this Thursday. The committee has decided to proceed in spite of the request, therefore denying me due process and my right to counsel,” Robinson said.
“The majority party of the Senate is pushing to remove me unduly. This is in blatant disregard of my rights. I will continue to fight this attack from every direction.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at email@example.com
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