Stockard on the Stump: Sen. Robinson finds support in Memphis billboards

Plus: Tennessee cattle score vaccines – and that’s no baloney

August 6, 2021 5:00 am
(Photo: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)

(Photo: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)

Dogged by federal fraud and theft charges, state Sen. Katrina Robinson is finding friends in unlikely places – Memphis billboards.

The roadway signs contain a picture of the Memphis Democrat with the words, “I love me some Katrina Robinson,” where a Gofundme site is set up to raise money for her legal fight.

Go to Robinson’s Facebook page and she details the difficult time she’s had in the last year since being charged with several crimes, mainly stealing $600,000 from her federally-funded business, which received $2.2 million in federal funds over five years. A second round of charges accuses her and two other women of conspiring to use her business, The Healthcare Institute, to defraud a victim of nearly $14,500.

State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

In her Facebook post, Robinson talks about how she suffered “major blows” to her finances and business, as well as issues with health and family, since the charges were filed in early 2020.

“Those close to me know I’m sometimes too concerned with others problems to ask for help with my own. Really most times I’m just too prideful to ask for help,” she writes.

Robinson explains that she smiles for the cameras and keeps working because her constituents deserve it. She continues, saying the billboard gesture has blown her mind. Robinson adds that she hopes the benefactor will eventually reveal their identity so she can thank them.

The first-term senator said little about the charges for months after being charged in early 2020. Instead, she spent time working as a nurse at hospitals in New York City and Texas during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But she gave an interview to MLK50 Justice Through Journalism in late July in which she called the case against her a “political and racist attack designed to mar the credibility of Black leadership.”

In the article, Robinson contends the civil and criminal cases against Black lawmakers compared to white lawmakers has a “history of disparities.” 

Her attorney Lawrence Laurenzi, of Burch, Porter and Johnson, says the case is “an investigation that has been in search of crime.”

In the article, Laurenzi points out Robinson’s business was a limited liability company and she was the sole owner before being turned into a corporation for which she was the only shareholder. As such, she was able to spend the profits, he said.

Robinson’s attorney points out the state senator’s business was a limited liability company and she was a sole owner before it became a corporation with her as the sole shareholder.

Robinson’s trial starts Sept. 13. And if convicted, she could face up to a $250,000 fine and a 20-year prison sentence.

Even if convicted, it’s highly unlikely she would serve that much time. But considering we have a Democrat in the White House now, instead of Republican Donald Trump, it will be interesting to see how much effort a new U.S. attorney puts into the case. And that’s not a jab at our legal system.

Who’s missing votes?

A tally kept by the Club for Growth found Robinson led the Senate in missed votes at 39.6% in the 2021 session, according to a Tennessee Journal report. She was followed by another Memphis Democrat, Sen. Sara Kyle, who missed 21.6% of 2,105 Senate votes, then Bristol Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg, 20%, and Memphis Democratic Sen. Raumesh Akbari, 19%.

According to the report, Lundberg’s absences were caused by COVID-19. Akbari, Kyle and Robinson also have been leery of being in the Senate chamber because of COVID concerns.

COVID count: Among the legislators who missed the most votes during the last legislative session were Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, and Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, who all had COVID-19.

In the House, Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, missed every vote after being hospitalized with COVID-19 for eight months. He took the oath of office last week, just days after leaving the hospital. 

The late Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, missed 98.6% of the votes. He served in the early part of the session before becoming too ill to return. Carter died in mid-May.

Rep. Jason Potts, D-Nashville, missed 59.6% of more than 2,200 votes and announced early this summer he will not seek another term. He was followed by Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, who missed 49.7% of the votes. He said he contracted COVID.

Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, missed 34.9% of the House votes. Cooper, who is in her early 90s, also had concerns about catching COVID.

48-hour abortion waiting period approved

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision and upheld Tennessee’s 48-hour waiting period for abortions, five years after the law took effect.

Tennessee Right to Life advocated for Amendment 1 in 2014, and the message was the first abortion restriction to pass after voters approved the measure. In a statement, the group says the waiting period has been effective in giving women more time to decide whether they should go through with an abortion.

No Love for gun violence prevention – yet

State Rep. Harold Love was hoping to bring up the need to use American Recovery Plan funds for a gun violence intervention program in Nashville this week when the governor’s Financial Stimulus Accountability Group.

For two years, he and Sen. Jeff Yarbro have been pushing legislation designed to reduce gun violence. It failed this year but could make a comeback in 2022.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s guidance for the funds authorizes use for “evidence-based community violence intervention programs to prevent violence and mitigate the increase in violence during the pandemic.” Connecticut plans to use $3 million over the next two years to bolster gun violence reduction and $4 million over two years to help youths and adults in workforce development.

“I think it lends itself to part of what we’ve seen happen the last couple of years. When communities get involved, it does indeed reduce the violence in their neighborhoods,” says Love, a Nashville Democrat.

Love’s hopes were dashed somewhat during this week’s meeting when the governor’s team launched into its plans for $3.9 billion coming to the state and $2.28 billion to local governments. Members of this bipartisan group are given an opportunity for input and questions, but anyone who’s seen the Zoom meetings knows the decisions are made in advance – and with no vote – even though the governor calls them “transparent” and “collaborative.”

Under the governor’s plan, the first half of the state’s share, about $1.8 billion, is to go toward water and sewer projects and broadband infrastructure.

According to Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley, those are eligible expenses. Eley made no mention of gun violence prevention even though Love said he broached the idea with the commissioner.

The U.S. Treasury has authorized the use of funds from the American Recovery Act to be used for “evidence-based community violence intervention programs” but Tennessee hasn’t shown interest yet: the first chunk will be spent on water, sewer and broadband, which are also crucial.

The state also will be reaching out to cities and counties and encouraging them to use their money for water and sewer projects. Those are crucial to Tennessee towns, especially in rural areas, though they might not be sexy projects. Even so, some might want to use the money for other major improvements if they can get them to fit the feds’ footprint.

Love did insert himself into the meeting at one point, saying he wanted to make sure other plans will be coming in September. He was assured the governor’s staff will reach out to him for other proposals.

But when it comes to controlling gun violence, don’t hold your breath, especially after the governor just sign his permit-less carry bill into law a few months ago.

Incidentally, the highlight of this Zoom meeting was a cameo by the toddler niece of Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who gave a nice smile and wave to the camera.

We don’t need no stinkin’ CRT

The Tennessee Department of Education is taking public input on restricted curriculum as part of the Legislature’s plan to quash anything that might lay the blame on white folks for the plight of slaves and Black Americans over the last 400 years.

The teaching of what we now know as critical race theory, which few around here had heard of until four months ago when Rep. John “Ray-gun” Ragan brought this language to the forefront, is now illegal in Tennessee schools. 

Although no one had heard of critical race theory until four months ago, the teaching of it is now illegal. That means teachers can’t say who’s at fault for those little incidents such as the bombings of Birmingham, the slaying of Freedom Riders in Mississippi or the beatings of those who desegregated Nashville’s lunch counters. Still, Gov. Bill Lee said: “Civics is incredibly important.”

It prevents, among many other things, teachers from saying who’s at fault for red-lining that prevented Black families from buying homes in certain neighborhoods and those little incidents such as the bombings of Birmingham, the slaying of Freedom Riders in Mississippi and the beatings of those who desegregated Nashville’s lunch counters, not to mention the lynchings that made life so wonderful for those of a darker hue across our region in the 20th century.

Asked about critical race theory during a press conference this week, Gov. Bill Lee said, “I think that history is incredibly important. Civics is incredibly important. Teaching children that this is the most exceptional nation in the world is important. But political commentary is not something we need to be teaching children. Critical race theory is un-American, it fundamentally puts groups of people above the safety of the individual, which is a founding principle of this nation.”

Ask just about any school district in the state, though, and they’ll tell you they don’t teach critical race theory. As usual, the state Legislature and governor are heading off the cattle at the pass – and making sure they’re vaccinated too.

Too bad the same can’t be said for people.

Cattle farmers get the prizes

Associated Press reporter Travis Loller wrote this week that Gov. Lee’s administration paid nearly $500,000 to cattle farmers to vaccinate their herds while he balked at the idea of offering incentives for people to get COVID-19 shots.

Some states have offered people trips and lottery tickets in a push to get everyone vaccinated. In contrast, the Lee Administration provided funds to cattle farmers and is giving travel vouchers to people who fly to the state’s largest cities and book a couple of nights at hotels.

Gov. Bill Lee at a plant dedication Humboldt, Tennessee in March, pictured with plant workers. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee at the dedication of a Tyson chicken plant in Humboldt, Tennessee in March, pictured with plant workers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Only about 40% of the state’s residents have gotten two doses of the vaccine, about half of adults. Unfortunately, some people who’ve had the vaccination are catching COVID or its Delta variant, which is sweeping the state and putting us back in the same situation we were in during February before the vaccine was available.

According to Loller’s article, Lee told the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association that government’s role is not to provide incentives for COVID-19 vaccines but to make them available and encourage people to get the shots. 

With the Delta variant flaring up, maybe it’s time to give people the same treatment as cows, round ’em up and shoot ’em up.

Give me bologna or give me death

The Comptroller’s Office and Department of Human Services caught to Shelby County groups, Open Door Inc. and Alumni Music Inc., failing to feed children at 17 of 21 summer sites in 2020 despite being paid to provide meals, according a report this week. The state requested repayment of the money.

Investigators did find that Alumni Music was feeding kids at its Giving Back site, a meal consisting of a slice of bologna (which looks rancid, according to my review), one pineapple chunk, a pack of cracker, 10 cheeseballs and 2 to 3 ounces of punch and milk. The reimbursable rate for this scrump-dilly-icious feast was $4.15.

This reminds me of a story, and for anyone who knows me, I’ve got about as many stories as the Bible, which my kids accuse me of telling over and over.

Anyway, several years ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about the Rutherford County sheriff’s decision to start charging inmates at the county jail for mustard and ketchup. They would have to pay at the commissary instead of getting packets with their meal.

One inmate who wrote me was inconsolable, saying he once looked forward to hot dog day Fridays but no longer could stand the meal. I believe my column said this new policy could cause a riot similar to the time they burned a big crop of confiscated weed outside the jail.

The sheriff and his chief chef invited me to the jail where she promptly called me everything but sliced bread. But when they served the inmates lunch, as I was there to observe the delicacies, they received a piece of packaged ham, a slice of white bread and pasta with Italian dressing. If you guessed the Italian dressing qualified as the vegetable, you would be correct.

I had only one suggestion. Could they have subbed bologna for the ham? After all, most people grew up on bologna but with a little mustard. Of course, when bologna was nowhere to be found, I was known to throw down a jam sandwich or two – two pieces of bread jammed together.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.