Memphis Democrat Katrina Robinson faces removal from Senate if she does not resign

By: - October 6, 2021 3:25 pm
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)

Convicted on felony fraud charges, state Sen. Katrina Robinson could be removed from her District 33 seat in the General Assembly if she doesn’t resign from her post, even before court appeals are exhausted.

Robinson could not be reached for comment this week. But based on her statements following a jury verdict last week and support from legislative colleagues, Robinson doesn’t intend to leave her District 33 post in Shelby County immediately — potentially forcing the hand of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and the Republican-controlled Senate, which might not look kindly on her conviction on felony charges. Anyone convicted of a felony is not eligible to serve in the state Senate.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally urged Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, to resign last week following the verdict and “he is hopeful she will come around to that decision,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider said Wednesday.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol on March 18, 2020 by John Partipilo.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally Photo: John Partipilo.

Robinson, however, said she still believes she is innocent and was “targeted for prosecution” after the conclusion of a trial in which she was found guilty of fraud in the personal use of nearly $3,500 in funds from her business, The Healthcare Institute.  Her defense attorneys also said they felt federal prosecutors failed to show evidence she wrongfully took money from the business and noted they intend to appeal the case.

Robinson’s attorney, Larry Laurenzi, did not return a phone call immediately Wednesday.

Sentencing is set for January. 

At least one of Robinson’s supporters in the Legislature believes she should continue to fight.

Rep. Torrey Harris, a Memphis Democrat, said he attended a large part of the trial and saw more of the case than the jury did.

Torrey Harris (Photo: torreyharris.com)
Rep. Torrey Harris (Photo: torreyharris.com)

“I still remain positive that an appeal or a motion is possible to change the outcome since there was no evidence presented that she misappropriated less than $3,500 from her own business,” Harris, a Memphis Democrat, said Wednesday.

Based on his understanding of state law, Harris said she is still senator for the 33rd District and resignation “remains unnecessary” unless she is sentenced “and even then she is subject to be reinstated as senator if the judgment is reversed for reasons other than a pardon.”

A section of state law provided by Harris dealing with vacancies backs up that assertion.

Harris added, “She left court Thursday and went straight back to working for the community in both her elected capacity and also in her thriving business.”

State Rep. London Lamar, another Memphis Democrat, made this statement Wednesday when asked if she felt Robinson had any option but to resign.

London Lamar Representative from District 91
Rep. London Lamar

“I hope Sen. Robinson consults with her family and legal team about how she should proceed and continues to put her district in the best position possible. I support her taking the time she needs to figure out how to proceed,” said Lamar, who attended the final part of the trial.

Robinson might not have much time left to make a decision. 

The Legislature is set to return to Nashville for a special session Oct. 18 when lawmakers will consider approval of a $500 million incentives package for Ford-SK Innovation to build a $5.6 billion Ford electric truck and battery production facility at the Memphis Regional Megasite.

More than likely, the Senate wouldn’t consider removing Robinson during that special session called by the governor. But conservative lawmakers are bucking for a separate special session immediately afterward, when they would take up several matters dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robinson could face a Senate vote to remove her from office during that second session in late October, much like former Rep. Jeremy Durham did five years ago when an investigation found he had sexually harassed more than 20 women in the General Assembly. The House removed Durham, a Williamson County Republican, from his legislative seat after an hours-long debate.

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

That session is not a certainty yet. But if it doesn’t go off as planned, Robinson is certain to face removal from the Senate in January 2022, even if an appeal of her conviction is under way and sentencing is done.

Brandon Puttbrese, spokesman for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the group is “monitoring the situation closely.”

Caucus Chairman Raumesh Akbari referred questions on Robinson’s situation to Puttbrese.

If Robinson were to resign before November, a year before the next election, a special election could be held to replace her. But if she waits and steps down or is removed less than a year before the 2022 election date, the Shelby County Commission would appoint a replacement.

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner said Wednesday he has not spoken with Robinson.

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, Jr. (Photo: Shelby County)

“We aren’t really contemplating anything yet. I guess we’re just waiting to hear from Sen. Robinson, and then we’ll take our queue from there,” Turner said.

The County Commission would only appoint a replacement. A special election would be conducted by the state.

Midway through the trial, the court acquitted Robinson of 15 of 20 charges federal prosecutors leveled against her when they claimed she stole $600,000 in federal grant money from her business. Yet even with that sudden development, the jury found Robinson committed fraud by spending just under $3,500 for personal expenses and misrepresented information on two federal reports.

After the verdict, Robinson said, “I hoped that today, after a year of allegations, accusations, harassment and persecution at the hands of the prosecution, that we would have a verdict that would end this nightmare in its entirety. That didn’t happen. But our fight is far from over.”

Likewise, Laurenzi said his legal team plans to pursue every legal avenue for what it believes is a “correct result” in the case. 

“We strongly feel that the jury did not get it right, that the jury got it wrong,” Laurenzi said. He noted the burden fell on the defense to prove Robinson’s innocence rather than the prosecution to prove her guilt.

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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.

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