Sen. Katrina Robinson: “This has been going on since the Reconstruction era.”
Robinson talks about the double standard that applies to Black women in elected office and the misunderstandings of her case.
Sen. Katrina Robinson faces the Tennessee Senate Ethics Committee on Jan. 20. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Katrina Robinson describes 2019, her first year in the Tennessee Senate, as a productive one, having passed meaningful legislation that included a bill to expand career and technical education to middle school students. But by the next summer, federal authorities had charged her in a 48-count indictment with embezzling nearly $600,000 from a federal grant awarded to her Memphis nursing school.
Many of those charges were dismissed before the September 2021 trial. Halfway through the trial, U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman dismissed an additional 15 charges after determining the prosecution based its legal theory on a fundamental misunderstanding of grant accounting.
Jurors convicted Robinson of four counts of fraud in the personal use of $3,500 in funds from her business, The Healthcare Institute, and found her not guilty on a fifth count. But after considering a motion to acquit, Lipman found Robinson not guilty on two of the charges. A separate case on charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud was dismissed after Robinson agreed to enter a pretrial diversion program.
The costs have been enormous in an investigation that she said she was unaware of and began in 2016, two years before she won her Senate seat. Robinson maintained her innocence and blamed her conviction partly on the same reason Lipman tossed out charges during the trial – the jury didn’t understand accounting.
She said she moved out of her home and went to work at night as a nurse to support herself and the school to allow some students to finish, after it lost its funding. She has at least $175,000 in legal bills.
And now the Memphis Democrat faces expulsion from the Senate when its Ethics Committee voted along party lines last week to recommend her ouster. Robinson spoke with The Lookout about the investigation and its aftermath. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tennessee Lookout: When did you become aware that the federal government had opened an investigation into your business, The Healthcare Institute?
Katrina Robinson: Around November of 2019 I had one of my former students get in touch with me and tell me that some investigators had come to her house asking questions about the school. I didn’t really pay too much mind. And then another student called me. The next student (that) called me had the information for the investigator. I called him, left a message. He never called me back. I didn’t hear anything else until February 2020 when they raided my home. I was told that [the investigation] started in November of 2016, but I didn’t get any contact with anybody until the feds were at my door in February 2020.
Lookout: What happened on that day in February?
Robinson: I was on my way home from Nashville. It was early in the morning, probably about seven o’clock. My best friend stays with my kids while I’m in session, cause they were still underage. And so she called and she said, “Katrina, there’s about 20 FBI agents here at the front door.” And I said, “What do they want?” She said, “I don’t know. They just came in here and started searching the house.”
The news media was there already. I asked [the FBI], “Why are you all here?” He wouldn’t answer me. He said, “I can answer your questions, but you’ll have to answer questions for me too.’’ I told him I’d rather not unless I had an attorney there represent me. So I didn’t answer any questions. They just continued to look. They took everything out of the house. Shoes, my son’s laptop. They took everything. And then one of my employees calls from the school and tells me that they were there. From the school, they took all of my file cabinets. Every last file we ever had, all their computers, everything.
Lookout: What is the basis of the investigation?
Robinson: They said it started over a purse, but you’re talking about an eBay purchase in November 2016. The people who actually gave me the grant didn’t find out that I was being investigated until four days after I was elected to this position, which was in 2018. I didn’t find out until 2020. So I don’t know.
Lookout: Did you have any issues with HRSA or HHS, the federal departments that gave The Health Institute the grant?
Robinson: I wanted to make sure we had a good team. I had my accountant Jonathan Nyaku and I hired a business attorney. I wanted to make sure we did the right thing. And I even had him meet with the grant officials who came to visit us in the very beginning to make sure that we were well aware of what the constraints were. I think they didn’t know that we weren’t a huge institution, even though it was clearly outlined in the grant—nothing wasn’t disclosed. I just think they didn’t know.
Lookout: Did the institution that issued the grant play any role in the investigation, or initiating the investigation?
Robinson: No. There are no records of subpoenas or anything until 2019. The grant officials were not aware. They awarded us money every year. We got awarded in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.
This has been going on since back in the Reconstruction Era, when Black people were first able to hold office. . . I think our community is so blind to it because we believe the media. It's not about the media. It's about the crux of what's happening—the criminal justice system ripping Black political power away from these communities.
– Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis
Lookout: What are the two remaining charges about?
Robinson: The two that remain are two individual transactions that were made to a makeup artist, and a caterer and promotion company. The only reason why they remain is because of an email that has been misinterpreted over and over again. You saw a financial statement down to the cent where you can see that those things were not even attributed to the grant, which I don’t think the jurors understood. Because they didn’t understand, they convicted. And now we’re in a position where I hope to get those overturned. Really, in a trial, it’s supposed to be that the burden is on the prosecutor. The burden was on us the entire time and I think the jurors thought the burden was on us.
Lookout: Why didn’t these two charges get dismissed?
Robinson: We filed a motion for acquittal and a motion of retrial. There are certain constraints that happen with a motion for acquittal and a motion for a retrial. One of them requires the judge to be the “thirteenth juror” to see if someone could reasonably infer that there was a crime committed. The other one is just looking at the basis of the facts in law to see whether the trial was adequately done. With those two charges, what she’s saying is that a reasonable jury could interpret that that was the case. If you look at her ruling and read through it, it’s all but admitting that there was no theft. The conviction stands on the basis that there was possibly an attempt to defraud.
Lookout: What was prosecutors’ theory of the case in the trial?
Robinson: It changed so many times. From my understanding, when we got down to the bones of it, they didn’t understand how the grant worked. They brought these charges based on the theory that all the money that the business made was under the constraints of the grant.
Lookout: They had a mistaken perspective?
Robinson: So then when they (prosecutors) realized that didn’t apply to this particular grant program, they started backpedaling. It started out as theft against the government. Then it was theft against THI. Then it was only theft against THI that had to do with the grant. So, I mean, it changed three or four times. They had done no forensic accounting. Their forensic accountant didn’t even have a CPA license and got on the stand and, after every transaction, said, “I don’t know but it has to do with grant funds,” based on that theory that the grant program controls all that money. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.
Lookout: Do you feel like there’s a difference in how this is understood in the public versus what happened in the courtroom?
Robinson: The public thinks that I actually stole grant money. They don’t understand that I actually own the school, that the school produces revenue that even the theory within the case changed. What I’m convicted of now is not even what I was charged with initially. I just think they don’t know. This is one of those situations that is so complicated, unless you were there, you don’t understand unless you were in the courtroom.
Lookout: From the initial indictment of 48 counts down to the two that remain, what has been the cost of defending yourself against the FBI and the federal government? What has been the collateral damage, beyond the courtroom?
Robinson: I and my family and my business have suffered tremendous loss. The day that the feds actually raided my home and business, we had tuition support from the Shelby County government, from the state of Tennessee, from the Veterans Administration. They all pulled it away based on this investigation that I stole $600,000.
They took away funding for the students. I had students who were actively enrolled in our phlebotomy program, who had two weeks left in class. I had students who had just enrolled in the LPN program and had an entire year to go. I ended up eating over $120,000 in tuition because I wasn’t going to turn my back on the students just because the government just demolished our school.
I went to work as a nurse. Last session, I worked at night at Vanderbilt, went to session in the morning, took a nap, went back to Vanderbilt. Because we were not able to make it without students being able to pay tuition. I didn’t want to shift that burden to them because it wasn’t their fault. That’s still the case now. All of our students are self-pay students now, which defeats the purpose of why we even started. I wanted to create a program where students would have the resources to be able to afford to go to school. We’re still going through that process and revamping our business model so we can recoup those things.
I lost employees. I can’t even recruit employees now because the first thing they do after an interview is Google the school and this is the first thing that comes up and they don’t have a full understanding of the case. I went from a staff of 15 to four.
(Ethics committee members) sat there at that hearing the other day and read a criminal complaint from a case that has been dismissed. They didn’t read why the case had been dismissed. Then they read the original indictment from this case, knowing that it's not the same. And they altered it. John Stevens’ comment was, “Well, it looks to us like you stole money from the people of Tennessee and we owe it to the people of Tennessee to pursue….” and I'm like, “What the hell? What were you reading?”
– Sen. Katrina Robinson
I had to move out of my home. I had to sell some things to pay my attorneys. I’m in it, like, $175,000 in legal fees now for an email about $3,400. I brought my kids back home. My son works for me now. My daughter just went through the nursing program—she just got a job yesterday.
So, I mean, I’ve suffered tremendously. Even in my service. I got elected in 2018, started serving in January of 2019. I had a great first year and I passed some really meaningful legislation. I continued to give back to the community. Here this comes in 2020, plus COVID. I haven’t had a chance to operate at my full potential through my time. It’s been clouded with this stuff. I’m just ready to get that past me and do what I need to do.
Lookout: You’ve mentioned ways that politics is affecting this. How you’re held to a different standard. How is that happening?
Robinson: It’s not that I’m held to a different standard, it’s that I’m judged differently. I consider myself an ethical and moral person. This trial has made it seem as if I’m not. In the public, people are more apt to look at the negative than the positive. So that’s what happens. Me, and what I have going on, is nothing compared to what I have seen happen even in my short time here. We had a senator sit there with $6 million in Medicare fraud and settle in civil court for $4 million. You got a senator in there who has been under public investigation since 2016, finally got indicted, hasn’t gone before the ethics committee. A senator sitting there who is a physician who just lost his right to practice medicine for writing opioid prescriptions for his cousin, who was also his mistress. He hasn’t been before the ethics board.
Those people sat there at that hearing the other day and read a criminal complaint from a case that has been dismissed. They didn’t read why the case had been dismissed. Then they read the original indictment from this case, knowing that it’s not the same. And they altered it. John Stevens’ comment was, “Well, it looks to us like you stole money from the people of Tennessee and we owe it to the people of Tennessee to pursue….” and I’m like, “What the hell? What were you reading?”
And this is the person who had just come off a campaign fund issues complaint. Who sits on the ethics board. They have their own standard as to how they do things. The things they want to look in and things they want to turn a blind eye. After Brian Kelsey was indicted, the secretary gave him his condolences. Another one stood up and said, “Well, I don’t understand why it’s a crime anyway.” (Editor’s note: Kelsey was indicted on five counts of campaign finance fraud for transferring funds from a failed congressional race to his state senate campaign fund through an intermediary, a federal offense. This is apparently what the senator in question was referring to.)
Lookout: Why you and not them? Why are you being held to a different standard?
Robinson: Look at me. I mean, just look at me. I don’t look like any of them. (Robinson is a Black woman.) Our legislature has a history, at least in this assembly, of abusing their power to pass unjust legislation that ends up in court every time. It’s the same thing when it comes to a senator who they don’t want. They will abuse their power to get the process done and they’ll fight with the aftermath later.
Just think about this. Look at what’s happening in Maryland, have you seen this case? Marilyn Mosby is a young state attorney in Maryland, she was the attorney who prosecuted the cops who killed Freddie Gray. She’s been going through the same thing.
Do you get what I’m saying? Copy, paste, repeat. Copy, paste, repeat. I’m not the first one. Look at Catherine Pugh from Baltimore. There’s a young lieutenant governor (Jennifer Carroll) from Florida who went through the same thing. There’s a lady in New Mexico (Sheryl Williams Stapleton) going through the same thing. All black women. This has been going on since back in the Reconstruction Era, when Black people were first able to hold office. They would try to drive them out in any way that they could. They hung them, they burned them. They brought test cases against them. They’ve done this repeatedly. I think our community is so blind to it because we believe the media. It’s not about the media. It’s about the crux of what’s happening—the criminal justice system ripping Black political power away from these communities.
Lookout: How do you feel this was handled within the Democratic caucus?
Robinson: I’m not unrealistic. Everybody has their own political investments that they have. You don’t want to dim your light by trying to support somebody who others may not think favorably of. It puts you in a precarious situation. I understand, people can’t be up front and support you how you would think they would.
If it was me, and I worked with you for all these years, and I know your character… I know that when I leave, you’re still in the legislature at eleven o’clock at night sometimes working on your business… I would just be compelled to stand up and say something like: “Y’all ain’t going to do anything about this?” That’s just my personality, but I understand everybody’s not like that.
Lookout: So at any point now you could get called in front of the full chamber and they would vote. Based on that, you could theoretically have to get up and go to your office and pack up and leave, is that the situation now?
Robinson: Every right that you think somebody has in due process was violated. I didn’t get adequate notice. I did not have my representation. I have not been informed of the process. I still don’t know what happens next. All I know is they file a report, it goes to the Senate floor, and they’re supposed to vote.
I don’t know if they ask me questions, or if I answer those questions, or if we present our sides. I don’t even know anything because they make the rules up as they go. If you look at the senate code of ethics there’s no detail. It’s all very vague.
Lookout: How does it affect you as a lawmaker?
Robinson: I’m going to find my legislation. I’m gonna keep going. I’m doing business as usual on behalf of the people in my district. I just gotta do my job, but you know, the moment that that’s not my job, well, I don’t know what happens.
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