Ousted Tennessee senator sentenced to probation for fraud

Mar 18, 2022, 7:23 PM | Updated: Mar 19, 2022, 1:09 pm

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A former Tennessee state senator expelled from office after a conviction for using federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of the nursing school she operates was sentenced Friday to a year of probation but no prison time.

Katrina Robinson had faced four to 10 months in prison under sentencing guidelines after she was found guilty in September of two counts of wire fraud in Memphis federal court. But U.S. District Judge Sheryl H. Lipman departed from the guidelines at sentencing, saying Robinson had already suffered greatly and the Memphis community would gain no benefit from prison time for the nursing school administrator, community leader and mother of two.

Robinson, a Democrat, was elected to represent a Memphis district in the state Senate in 2018. She was removed from office last month by the Republican-led Senate in a vote along party lines.

The criminal case against Robinson involved federal grant money for a school for health care workers she started running before she was elected to public office.

In July 2020, prosecutors accused Robinson of paying personal expenses from more than $600,000 in federal grant money awarded to The Healthcare Institute, which trains nurses and focuses on helping low-income minority students. She was ultimately convicted of only two of 20 counts, involving about $3,400 in wedding expenses in 2016.

Before the 27-5 vote to remove her from the Senate, Robinson, who is Black, argued that she had been unfairly judged by the white-majority body. 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.

It was the first time the chamber had removed a senator since at least the Civil War.

On Friday, prosecutor Christopher Cotten asked the judge to sentence Robinson to 10 months in prison, saying she had shown “abject defiance of accepting any responsibility for her actions” and had unfairly blamed racism for the charges.

During the sentencing hearing, Robinson told the judge that she understood the importance of her case and acknowledged that she did not keep a “tight eye on things.”

Lipman, the judge, said she read 57 letters of support for Robinson. Former students and current employees described her as a great mother, nurturing educator, inspiring community leader and dedicated nurse. Robinson traveled outside Tennessee during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic to help care for sick patients in hospitals.

However, Lipman also scolded Robinson for blaming the charges on “hot button issues” such as race, although the judge did acknowledge past cases of racial injustice in the court system. Lipman criticized Robinson’s sloppy record keeping and added that Robinson failed to respect the federal grant funded by taxpayers by not giving it proper attention.

The judge gave Robinson some advice.

“Someone who tries to do everything needs to edit, and needs to edit desperately,” Lipman said.

Lipman also ruled Friday that Robinson had committed perjury during her trial when she defended an email that said money she used on her wedding was for a community patient education event and should be covered by grant money.

After the hearing, Robinson told reporters that she felt probation was appropriate and she plans to continue working in the community.

“Most of the stuff that I talked about as it relates to race has to do with my Senate expulsion first of all, and just the overall pattern since the beginning of times when Black elected officials were able to serve — not necessarily that I do not accept responsibility for this case,” Robinson said.

While she gets to avoid prison, Robinson has already paid a steep price, both to her reputation and her finances, said her lawyer, Lawrence Laurenzi. Robinson has struggled in securing a checking account, her retirement account has been seized by the federal government, and she could lose her nursing license, the lawyer said.

Laurenzi said he plans to appeal the conviction.

After Robinson’s expulsion from the Senate, the Shelby County Commission chose another Black woman, Democratic state Rep. London Lamar, to replace her. Commissioners will choose Lamar’s replacement in the state House.

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Ousted Tennessee senator sentenced to probation for fraud