GOP-led Tennessee Senate expels Democrat convicted of fraud

Feb 2, 2022, 9:12 AM | Updated: 12:12 pm

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Republican-led Tennessee Senate voted Wednesday to remove Democratic Sen. Katrina Robinson from office because of her recent wire fraud conviction, the first time the chamber has removed a senator since at least the Civil War. She angrily denounced her expulsion as a “procedural lynching.”

The criminal case against Robinson, a Memphis lawmaker, involves federal grant money at a school for health care school workers she operated in the city before she was elected to the Senate. Robinson and other Democrats called her expulsion premature, noting that many of the original charges were dropped and she hasn’t been sentenced yet on the two remaining counts.

“While the expulsion of a Senator for the first time in history was not something any of us wished to see, it was a necessary action,” said Senate Speaker Randy McNally in a statement after the vote. “The integrity of the Senate is of paramount importance.”

Robinson, who is Black, argued before the 27-5 vote to expel her that she had been unfairly judged by the white-majority chamber. She called it a “procedural lynching,” prompting cheers of support that the Republican speaker gaveled down. Some of her supporters in the gallery were in tears and others stood in solidarity.

“I feel beat up standing in front of you guys,” Robinson said. “And really I didn’t prepare any words because there are no words for what this is.”

Sen. John Stevens, a Republican from Huntington, said Robinson had been judged in a courtroom by her fellow citizens.

“They determined she violated a criminal statute. A federal judge did not disagree with that determination. How can we demand that citizens respect the integrity and reputation of the Senate if we disrespect them by ignoring their determinations?”

Prosecutors accused the Memphis lawmaker of paying personal expenses from more than $600,000 in federal grant money awarded to a school for health care workers she operated. She was ultimately convicted of two of the 20 counts, involving $3,400 in wedding expenses in 2016.

Robinson, one of three Black women in the Senate, all of them Democrats, has maintained her innocence.

GOP senators, who outnumbered Democrats 27-6 before the expulsion, declined Robinson’s request to delay removal proceedings until after her sentencing in March. Robinson’s Democratic colleagues renewed the request on Wednesday, but it failed on a tie vote.

Tennessee’s state law and Constitution contain provisions that disqualify people convicted of felonies from eligibility to hold public office. Democrats have said the judgment isn’t final until sentencing.

Democrats have also said the case could prove a “slippery slope” to seek removal on alleged behavior that preceded a lawmaker’s election and time in office.

Robinson, was elected to the state Senate in 2018, pointed out that several of her former and current Republican colleagues have faced legal scrutiny over the years without facing the same punishment. Robinson referenced Sen. Brian Kelsey, from Germantown, who was indicted last year on charges that he violated federal campaign finance law. He has since stepped down as the Senate’s education chairman, but has not faced threat of being expelled.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Joey Hensley has faced unethical conduct as a physician accusations. Hensley allegedly improperly treated and prescribed controlled substances to immediate family members and an employee with whom Hensley was also involved in a personal relationship. Like Kelsey, Hensley has not been faced expulsion threats.

The last expulsion of a Tennessee lawmaker happened in 2016 when the House voted 70-to-2 remove Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham after an attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.

Democratic State Sen. Ophelia Ford of Memphis’ election was voided in 2006 after the upper chamber determined that her 13-vote victory margin had been tainted by ballots cast in the names of felons and dead voters. But that decision didn’t stop her for long: She was re-elected to the Senate later that year.

In the House, Rep. Robert Fisher was ousted on a 92-1 vote in 1980. The Elizabethton Republican had been convicted of bribery for asking for a bribe to kill a bill.

According to legislative librarian Eddie Weeks, the only previous expulsions involved six House lawmakers who refused to attend a special legislative session called in 1866 by then-Gov. William “Parson” Brownlow after the conclusion of the Civil War.

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GOP-led Tennessee Senate expels Democrat convicted of fraud