Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Convicted state senator could be ousted

January 14, 2022 6:00 am
Senator Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, working during the Ford special session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Senator Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, working during a 2021 special session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Sen. Katrina Robinson could face removal from the state Senate based on a decision by the chamber’s Ethics Committee.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said this week the panel is reviewing Robinson’s legal situation. 

“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,” McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, said.

Robinson did not plead guilty to any charges and two out of three cases against her were dismissed. In once case she was convicted on two counts of wire fraud. 

Senate Ethics Committee meetings are closed to the public until the panel finds probable cause to take action against a member. Such a decision would trigger a hearing, which would be held in an open meeting.

Robinson had no response Wednesday when asked about the committee’s review. 

“I’m just going to let the process play out,” she said. 

Senate members chafed over Robinson’s appearance at two special sessions in fall 2021 after she was convicted on four federal charges left from 20 charges in which prosecutors initially claimed she stole $600,000 in federal grant money from her Memphis business, The HealthCare Institute.

A legislative ethics committee is reviewing Sen. Katrina Robinson’s legal situation. If Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, is ejected from the Senate, the Shelby County Commission would have to appoint her replacement.

The jury ultimately found Robinson committed fraud by spending just under $3,500 for personal expenses and misrepresenting information on two federal reports.

U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl Lipman recently dismissed the two verdicts involving misleading information but left two in place and refused to grant her a new trial, the Tennessee Journal reported.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.

Robinson’s defense team is still trying to keep her from serving time, arguing in a pre-Christmas filing that removal from the Senate and loss of her nursing license should be enough punishment, according to the TNJ.

The filing also noted that Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, will “lose her state Senate seat,” the TNJ reported.

Republican Senate members considered taking action last fall to oust Robinson but opted to let her keep the post while her appeals were being considered. With nothing but her sentencing remaining in this case, Robinson could be out of legal arguments to continue serving.

With less than a year remaining before the November election, the Shelby County Commission would have to appoint a Senate replacement if Robinson is booted.

Getting to the bottom of it

The Registry of Election Finance issued subpoenas Thursday for former House Speaker Glen Casada, his chief of staff, Cade Cothren, Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, and several other people in an effort to find out more about the Faith Family Freedom PAC that threw money into Warner’s campaign against former Rep. Rick Tillis.

The Registry has been stonewalled by the PAC, which was accused of coordinating illegally with Warner’s campaign. Warner ran against Tillis, who was critical of Casada in 2019 as he faced scrutiny for participating in sexist text messages and trying to persuade House members to change their votes on the governor’s voucher bill.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, photographed at his desk in the Tennessee House of Representatives chambers Jan. 12. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, photographed at his desk in the Tennessee House of Representatives chambers Jan. 12, is being investigated by the FBI. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Board members voted to subpoena the group after Sydney Friedopfer testified by phone from Utah that Cothren asked her to sign off on the Faith Family Freedom PAC so he could run it when he was her boyfriend, according to Bill Young, executive director of the Registry and Board of Ethics.

After her testimony, the board decided “to cast a wide net,” Young said, and to obtain all documents associated with the organization.

The PAC, which used the same postal code as Phoenix Solutions, another shadowy vendor that was paid tens of thousands of dollars by the House Republican Caucus and individual members, disappeared from the radar when reporters started asking about it in early 2021.

The PAC could be a figure in the FBI’s year-old investigation into Casada, Warner and Republican Rep. Robin Smith of Hamilton County. Money laundering is considered a potential target of the probe.

Casada told the Tennessee Lookout in December he still doesn’t know what the feds’ investigation is about.

Chasing T-Rex

When a House redistricting committee unveiled its plans this week for the new congressional district map, my first reaction was laughter: The 5th District, which contains Davidson, Dickson and part of Cheatham County, “looks like a dinosaur on crack.” 

Someone mentioned later, “It looks like a dinosaur on crack drew it,” no offense to the map drawers.

Nevertheless, the Republican-controlled House panel approved the congressional redistricting plan, which splits Davidson County three ways, placing south and east Nashville in the same district with west Wilson, eastern Williamson and Maury, Marshall and Lewis counties.

A Senate redistricting committee followed suit Thursday and passed the map on a 5-1 vote, sending it to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This thing is moving at the speed of a bullet, and anyone who gets in the way is going to be shot down.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, contended that putting Davidson County into three congressional districts would give Nashville residents better representation, with three members in Congress instead of one. Jackson also argued that the last two maps produced by Democrat-led Legislatures split Davidson County, putting portions in districts represented by former U.S. Reps. Bart Gordon and Marsha Blackburn. Democrats also split Shelby and Knox counties, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro countered, saying, “This is a mess.” He noted one doesn’t have to be a political science major to see it is gerrymandering.

Redistricting is required after the federal census is conducted every 10 years to reapportion districts to ensure equity and the federal requirement for “one man one vote.”

I think it was sort of what was left over when you move in from the east to the middle and from the west to the middle.

– House Speaker Pro Tem Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, on how the new 5th Congressional district, which is anchored by Nashville, was drawn.

Yet large Black populations in north, east and south Nashville will be split up, diluting their vote and making it harder for their voice to be heard, Yarbro says. (That could wind up being grounds for legal action, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a lawsuit filed against the Legislature if this passes.)

But while Davidson County will be split, creating a situation in which the state’s capital city might not have its own congressman, Yarbro says the “clearest losers” will be rural communities who could be “dwarfed” by urban communities. 

In that view, there aren’t many winners.

Map drawers are supposed to make districts as compact as possible in an effort to keep communities with the same interests in the same congressional district.

After their meeting Wednesday, Republican legislators scurried out the door, because back in December they had to answer questions they didn’t want to hear. This time, they apparently didn’t want to talk about T-Rex running across the middle of the state.

Later, though, a reporter caught up with Speaker Pro Tem Pat Marsh, who served as vice chairman of the House redistricting committee.

Asked about the compactness of the 5th District or lack thereof, Marsh said, “I think it was sort of what was left over when you move in from the east to the middle and from the west to the middle.”

Marsh, a Shelbyville Republican, said he didn’t know whether maps presented by House Democrats and other groups such as the League of Women Voters and NAACP, which kept Davidson County whole, met all federal and state requirements.

“It still could be a Democratic seat. I think over half of Nashville is still in it,” Marsh said. “And the good thing about it is Nashville could have, instead of one congressional member, could have three if it works out like that.”

The analysis

It’s as clear as the nose on your face that Republicans are trying to knock out longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper and elect one of their own, giving them an 8-1 edge in the congressional delegation and kicking out Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.

Why try to hide it?

But in doing so, as political scientists have been saying for months, be careful what you ask for, because you might not like what you get.

It’s not likely. But within two to three election cycles, Districts 5, 6 and 7 could elect Democrats – someone from Nashville with deep pockets – giving Republicans only a 5-4 advantage.

U.S. Rep. Mark Green (Photo: Wikipedia)
U.S. Rep. Mark Green: getting to know North Nashville. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Political leanings go in cycles anyway, but creating artificial districts works against the grain. That’s, in part, how Republicans wound up gaining control. Democrats thought they could redistrict them out of existence and wound up becoming lazy and nearly extinct.

The question is whether Democrats have the wherewithal to go out and find candidates who can use Davidson County as a stronghold and win the newly aligned seats.

After all, Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Green of the 7th District is not going to be happy trying to woo voters in north Nashville. They just don’t see things the same way.

Toying with education funding

The Department of Education sent out a release this week with cursory information about changing the state’s K-12 education funding formula, now called the Basic Education Program.

Gov. Bill Lee and supporters say they want to go from a “resource-based” formula to a “student-based” method.

The problem is whether he’ll be able to persuade the Legislature to follow suit this year. Several Republican senators are leery of acting too quickly.

Anyway, according to the Department of Education, after going through 18 subcommittees whose work has been questioned, the base for funding will be determined by educator salaries, nurses, counselors, technology, district needs and school health.

The formula will be “weighted” based on poverty and concentrated poverty, which would be considered “heavy,” the needs of rural schools, which would be “moderate,” unique needs such as gifted and English language learners, which would “vary,” and charter schools, which would be considered “light.”

If Gov. Bill Lee wants to push a change to the state’s education funding formula through the legislature this year, he’s likely going to have to offer a bigger carrot to legislators or he’s liable to have a mutiny.

Additional money would go to districts for high growth, tutoring and career and tech education.

Bonuses would be given per student for performance such as good ACT scores, but extra “weight” would be given for economically disadvantaged students.

In other words, everything under the sun will be a factor.

So far, this reporter has been unable to unearth a state legislator or state official who doesn’t believe the funding formula needs to be changed. But ask just about any one of them and they’ll also say the state needs to put more money into education. We rank about 45th in the nation for K-12 funding.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth pointed out Thursday morning the state has increased education spending dramatically in the last six to eight years. Yet he also said the state hasn’t seen the gain it would like to see in student learning. Either the state hasn’t spent enough or it’s pouring money down a drain.

Not to get on the soap box, but fundamentals are lacking. Kids don’t read for enjoyment, and they spend too much time staring into social media.

Then again, I walked uphill to school backwards – both ways – in three feet of snow every day. You know that’s a lie, because when Sumner County schools were out for snow, we threw snowballs at cars all day long. We only got caught once because one of our buddies couldn’t jump the wire around my neighbor’s yard, which was used by the blind man who lived there to keep from getting lost.

But I digress.

If Lee wants to push this funding formula change through the General Assembly this year, he’s likely going to need to offer a big carrot – in the form of money – or he’s going to have a mutiny that hasn’t been seen since his voucher bill squeaked through and then landed in court. That’s likely where this is headed too.

A new justice

Lee appointed Sarah K. Campbell this week to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court, moving her there from a job as Tennessee’s associate solicitor general and special assistant to the state attorney general.

Working for AG Herbert Slatery, Campbell has represented the state before the nation’s highest court and the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“Her commitment to an original interpretation of the state and federal constitutions will serve Tennesseans well. She is well-suited for the state’s highest court and I am proud to appoint her to this position,” Lee said in a statement.

No doubt, Campbell is a fine attorney.

But it’s always interesting to hear someone say judges should be committed to the “original interpretation” of the Constitution. After all, those documents had high ideals. But the original laws of the land allowed servitude, bondage, voting suppression and “separate but equal,” before somebody started to see the light. The Founding Fathers talked a good game. They just couldn’t back it up.

We’ll see whether Campbell is weighed down by history.

To infinity and beyond

Rep. Bud Hulsey, who is stuck in the past a little bit more than I am, told fellow House members this week that after years of cajoling and mockery, they had finally persuaded him to step into the 21st century.

“I finally succumbed,” the 68-year-old Kingsport Republican said as he proudly held up an iPhone.

Don’t worry Rep, you’re not alone. My kids and other people we see out in public make fun of me simply because my phone isn’t new enough. My carrier also says the same thing. In fact, they’re phasing me out, sort of like a breakup.

“They just don’t write ’em like that anymore.”

 

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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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