Week two of Robinson trial in Memphis: Prosecutors call former THI employees

By: - September 23, 2021 5:00 am
Shelby County Courthouse. (Photo: ShelbyCounty.gov)

Shelby County Courthouse. (Photo: ShelbyCounty.gov)

Trial continued in Memphis this week for state Sen.Katrina Robinson who is facing federal charges of embezzlement and fraud. The charges allege that she intentionally appropriated federal grant funds meant for her business, The Health Institute, which provides postsecondary education in nursing. 

The week’s testimony has focused on discrepancies in annual reports made by The Health Institute to the U.S. Department of Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the department of the federal government that administered grant funds to THI. 

The prosecution has relied on its witnesses to walk the jury through hundreds of spreadsheets, names, and numbers. Administrators for the State of Tennessee and the federal government compared tuition payments, names, and identification numbers for individual students at THI as the prosecution attempts to show that Robinson willfully misreported key metrics. 

Sen. Katrina Robinson hugs a supporter in April during legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Katrina Robinson hugs a supporter in April during legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Robinson’s legal team has argued that there was no foundation to claim reporting mistakes were made intentionally or even made by Robinson. Money carried over between grant periods or complications inevitable when dealing with sufficiently large data sets, they argue, could be responsible for discrepancies.

On Wednesday, the prosecution relied heavily on testimony from Richard Haines, a special agent in the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, who spent the bulk of the day on THI’s annual reports from 2016 to 2019. 

On direct examination, Haines described discrepancies he found between data reported to the federal government, data reported to the State of Tennessee, and internal business records seized by the FBI. For each yearly report submitted to HRSA, Haines had a list of entries he had found to be incomplete or inaccurate. These inconsistencies in student enrollment and sources of tuition payment affected between 10-20% of student records on any given report, each of which included information for a few hundred students.

Haines said THI claimed financial aid vouchers for students who paid for tuition by other means and reported enrollment information for nonexistent students. 

Robinson’s lawyers pointed out that Haines, who said he reviewed 50,000 documents in his investigation, didn’t find any evidence that Robinson intentionally misrepresented herself or THI. 

 Matthew Jehl, of the senator’s legal team, questioned Haines on the multiple errors in his reports, some of which he corrected as recently as Tuesday.

Haines used the same data when he testified in front of a grand jury that Robinson intentionally misrepresented students. 

Iesha Wesley, a former employee of Robinson’s at The Health Institute, testified she and Robinson explicitly communicated details of report filings with the U.S. Department of Health Resources and Services Administration, which was responsible for grants to the organization.

Two former THI employees, Iesha Wesley and Courtney McNeal, testified about how data was kept and reported at THI. Wesley worked directly on THI’s federal grant from 2017 to 2019, including helping prepare the school’s yearly HRSA report.Wesley called these annual reports a tedious process that required hundreds of records stored across three filing systems and said that Robinson told her to take specific care when reporting information to HRSA. 

According to Wesley, she and Robinson secured a late filing deadline when there were issues with data duplication on the government’s electronic filing system, a fact THI communicated explicitly to HRSA. 

McNeal testified about her duties as operations manager and laid the groundwork for testimony expected to come Thursday from THI’s accountant.

Robinson, a Democrat, was elected to the State Senate in 2018 to represent Tennessee’s 33rd Senate District 33, which includes southeast Memphis and parts of Collierville and Germantown. In a July interview with MLK50, Robinson, who is black, called the charges baseless, motivated by racism and politics.

U.S. district attorneys indicted her with 17 charges and, if convicted, she could face up to 20 years in federal prison. 

After hearing testimony from THI’s accountant, the court expects federal attorneys to rest their case on Thursday.  

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Eli Motycka
Eli Motycka

Writer based, born and raised in Nashville. Interested in land use, physical internet infrastructure, expos, and the fossil fuel supply chain. Motycka has written stories for the Lookout on marijuana alternative Delta 8, a guaranteed income experiment in North Nashville and the state's opioid crisis. Message me at [email protected] or on Twitter.