State Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, hugs Nashville activist Justin Jones at the Tennessee General Assembly in April. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The first week of state Sen. Katrina Robinson’s trial ended Friday afternoon as U.S. attorneys continued efforts to build a case for 17 counts of embezzlement and wire fraud.
The Healthcare Institute, a Memphis business owned by Robinson, was awarded a federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services in June, 2015. The multi-year, $2.2 million-dollar commitment supported THI’s geriatric nursing programs for low-income students. Federal prosecutors spent much of their time this week laying out a detailed history of Robinson’s financial history between 2015 and 2020 to establish a link between THI’s grant money and Robinson’s personal financial choices.
- Purchase of a wrought iron gate
- Residential painting and mold removal
- A cosmetics professional hired for Robinson’s 2016 wedding
- Purchases of a 2008 Lexus as a business vehicle
Testimony earlier in the week focused on the commingling of grant funds and business assets, various bank accounts held by THI and Robinson, and the terms of the grant money issued to THI and overseen by Robinson.
On Friday, federal attorneys called individuals involved in various transactions with Robinson between 2015 and 2020. These witnesses included Imran Siddiqui who sold Robinson a wrought iron gate, contractor Jacques Gardner who did residential painting and mold removal for Robinson, Nikki Chaffen, a cosmetics professional hired for Robinson’s 2016 wedding, and Lance Black at Imports of Memphis, which purchased a 2008 Lexus from Robinson in 2017. These transactions ranged from Chaffen’s $1,100 wedding fee to just over $20,000 for a Jeep purchased by THI and signed for by Robinson.
Attorneys for Robinson emphasized that none of these transactions involved Robinson misrepresenting herself or THI, a key element in embezzlement and fraud. Witnesses testified they did not know if they were paid with federal grant funding.
Lauren Stamps, who oversees customer services at Memphis Healthcare Federal Credit Union where Robinson has a personal checking-and-savings account, was the only witness to testify Friday about the direct flow of money from THI to Robinson. Between 2016 and 2020, Robinson received a direct deposit every two weeks from THI, where she was employed as the CEO and sole proprietor. Robinson’s biweekly pay increased from about $3300 in 2017 to $5500 in 2019 and she received yearly performance bonuses between $20,000 and $30,000 during the same period.
Two FBI agents testified that they had conducted simultaneous raids on Robinson’s businesses, Celebrity Body Studio and The Healthcare Institute. Agent Marcus Vance shared a detailed account of his team’s raid of Celebrity Body Studio, where his team seized documents, computers, a TV, and at least one office printer.
Friday ended with negotiation between attorneys over the number of documents U.S. attorneys plan to enter into evidence. Prosecutors want the jury to see documentation of any purchase made by Robinson near or exceeding $1000 between 2015 and 2020, specifically naming transactions with Amazon, Uber, Best Buy, American Airlines, TJ Maxx, and Dillard’s. Robinson’s lawyers maintain that the documentation is unnecessary and a distraction to the jury, who would be presented with thousands of pages not relevant to the case. The parties have not reached a final agreement.
Much of the case rests on the chain of custody of these funds and the intentional misrepresentation of their use by Robinson, both essential to proving embezzlement and wire fraud.
Federal attorneys indicated an accountant is expected to be the sole witness on Monday. Prosecutors said he will speak to THI’s business practices, its handling of grant money, and Robinson’s increased compensation. Prosecutors expect to rest their case on Thursday.
Robinson, who is Black, has named racism as a role in the trial. She and her attorneys have pointed out her company was a sole-owned LLC and both have said, in media interviews before Judge Sheryl Lipman issued a gag order, and on social media, that she is being persecuted for the same types of expenditures that typically go unnoticed solely because she is Black. She is defending herself in front of a jury that includes six Black women as part of the 16-person jury, as well as one Hispanic man. The rest of the jury is white.
Just before Friday’s mid-morning recess, Judge Lipman called a member of the audience forward to reprimand her for allegedly displaying her shirt, which read “Trust Black Women,” toward the jury. Soon after the court returned from the break, the woman was escorted out of the courtroom by security and did not return.
Robinson, age 40, was elected to the Tennessee Senate in 2018. She defeated incumbent Reginald Tate in the Democratic primary and was unopposed in the general election. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
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