There was enough commotion in the capitol’s Senate chamber last Wednesday to disturb the ghost of Elvis in Graceland’s Jungle Room all the way over in Memphis.
Sen. Katrina Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, is now former Sen. Robinson following a 27-5 party-line vote to expel her as the upper chamber representative of Tennessee’s District 33.
Robinson’s fall from grace caught few by surprise after her conviction for wire fraud in federal court. The 41-year-old nurse was accused of misusing $600,000 in grant money she received to help fund her nurse training school, The Healthcare Institute, which opened in 2015.
Initially charged with 48 counts evenly split between wire fraud and theft from government programs, she was convicted on only two federal wire fraud counts. That was enough for the Senate Ethics Committee to find probable cause to eject Robinson, who claims racism and misogyny were the motivations for her expulsion.
The Tennessee State Senate had not expelled a member since at least the Civil War, so the former lawmaker has earned a dubious distinction, one she surely could have done without.
Robinson continues to maintain she has committed no crimes. At her September trial, one of her attorneys said the school made some innocent record-keeping mistakes and the accountants were aware of all expenses.
But federal prosecutors noted that while federal grant money was deposited into an account established solely for those funds, the money was later transferred to the sole bank account of The Healthcare Institute. “Innocently,” or not, this was a grossly negligent act practically inviting abuse.
Government attorneys claimed that abuse did occur. They said Robinson used some of the funds to purchase a car for one of her children, her own divorce expenses and wedding expenses (presumably not on the same day) and even a designer handbag.
The jury did not buy all the government’s case, convicting then-Sen. Robinson on four counts, subsequently reduced to two by the trial judge. So, what to make of her claims of racism and sexism?
There is no denying that Tennessee and much of U.S. is burdened by a troubling history of racism. However, if a defendant in a criminal proceeding is afforded all the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, including competent legal representation (Robinson had four attorneys), it seems safest to assume that evidence, not race, persuaded the jury. To believe otherwise is to doubt the ability of the jury system to render justice.
The misogyny charge appears baseless, perhaps hurled in anger. Robinson offered no support for the accusation.
Robinson also offered some “what-aboutism” in defense, referencing other lawmakers who have faced or will face their day in court. That has little value as a defense, but it might serve as a warning to those on the other side of the aisle who voted to part company with Ms. Robinson: don’t gloat for long; schadenfreude may backfire.
Larry Van Guilder is a former editor, reporter and columnist for Knox TN Today. He has returned after a prolonged absence.