This story has been updated to reflect that Katrina Robinson was indicted Thursday.
The Blue Crime Wave strikes again as State Sen. Katrina Robinson has been indicted on 48 counts — 24 counts of theft and embezzlement from government programs and 24 counts of wire fraud, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee Michael Dunavant said Thursday. A federal grand jury returned the indictment Thursday.
Robinson was taken into custody and released on her own recognizance. She can travel in West and middle Tennessee without restrictions, according to court documents. Robinson was charged with theft and embezzlement on Wednesday.
A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court alleges Robinson used federal grant money issued to her for-profit nursing college to buy a vehicle for her daughter, expenses related to her wedding and honeymoon, and legal fees for her divorce. She is also accused of using the grant money to pay off credit cards and student loan payments, purchase beauty products and fund a campaign event.
Robinson, a Democrat, represents Tennessee Senate District 33, which encompasses portions of Whitehaven and Parkway Village in Memphis. She was elected to the office in 2018.
During a press conference Wednesday evening, neither Robinson nor her attorney Janika White directly denied the accusations outlined in the criminal complaint. Robinson implied her political convictions played a role in the investigation.
“It is believed that if I were not in the position that I’m in, that if I did not champion the voices, the views and the faces that I represent, that I would not be in this moment right now,” she said.
© Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal The Healthcare Institute on 7251 Winchester Road in Memphis where the FBI executed search warrants Friday that also included the home of businesses owner, state Sen. Katrina Robinson, a spokesman confirmed.
Robinson asked her supporters and constituents to pray for her.
“I want to ask that anyone who is listening to this, anyone who is watching this, if you support me, keep supporting me, if you stand with me, keep standing with me,” she said.
White said her client had been cooperating with federal investigators and criticized the statute cited in the criminal complaint, saying it was “broad and overreaching and leads to what no one in this society wants, which is overcriminalization.”
“That’s the idea where sometimes, we criminalize activity that may not have any criminal intent,” she said.
White also asked for people to keep Robinson in their thoughts and prayers, adding that during the pandemic, Robinson — who is a nurse — traveled to New York and to Texas to assist in communities that had been hit hard by COVID-19.
“I just want to say and remind everyone that Senator Robinson, she’s human. She’s still human,” White said.
Through his spokesman Adam Kleinheider, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally did not say whether Robinson should resign. McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said he would call for a Senate ethics investigation.
“Due to the fact that these are serious criminal charges, Lt. Governor McNally will be asking the Senate Ethics Committee to look into the matter,” Kleinheider said.
Robinson founded her nursing college, The Healthcare Institute, in 2015 and between then and 2019, she received $2.2 million in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“During that same time period, Robinson stole in excess of $600,000 from THI by compensating herself in excess of what was allowed under the terms of the HRSA grant and by using Institute funds for payments and purchases for her own personal benefit and that of her immediate family,” Dunavant’s office said in a release.
In her grant application for the HHS funding, Robinson said she intended to use the money for a program to train nurses to assist geriatric patients and for scholarships for low-income students who wanted to enroll in the program.
© Laura Testino / The Commercial Appeal A sign in the parking lot outside The Healthcare Institute, a for-profit college that provides nursing training in Memphis, which state Sen. Katrina Robinson founded. The FBI executed a search warrant at the college on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
The investigation was opened after HHS received an anonymous complaint in December 2016 alleging Robinson used grant money to buy $550 Louis Vuitton handbag. HHS and the FBI jointly investigated the case.
Bank records for The Health Institute obtained by the FBI and HHS allegedly showed Robinson giving herself a $25,400 performance bonus in the 2017 fiscal year, transferring $54,000 into a brokerage account to set up an IRA for herself, and paying herself a base salary of almost $170,000 more than was approved by HHS during the period her business was receiving grant funding.
Among the personal purchases Robinson is accused of making with federal dollars are a 2016 Jeep Renegade, a more than $5,500 wrought-iron front door and expenses and equipment for Celebrity Body Studio, another business owned by Robinson, and a snow cone business operated by her children.
She also allegedly used more than $5,000 in grant funding on a trip to Jamaica and almost $9,000 on tickets to Grizzlies games, other events at FedExForum and a rental space for a concession stand. © Max Garland / The Commercial Appeal The Whitehaven home owned by Katrina Robinson at 5131 Royston Lane in Memphis that was raided by FBI agents on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
The case will be presented to a federal grand jury at a later date. If convicted, she could face up to 20 years in federal prison — there is no parole in the federal system — three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
The charges were filed on July 24 and unsealed Wednesday.
Campaign finance scrutiny
In addition to the federal charges, Robinson could face scrutiny on the state level for possible campaign finance violations.
In the charging documents, an FBI agent notes Robinson spent $1,200 to pay “LR Clothier” in July 2018. The expenses were paid through Paypal, an online payment system.
According to Robinson’s campaign disclosures, she reported a $316 expenditure in July 2018, attributing it to “Paypal fees.” It is unclear whether the Paypal expenses outlined in the FBI’s charging document are the same as what Robinson reported on her campaign finance disclosure.
It is illegal to use campaign money for personal purposes.
Separately, the FBI charges note Robinson spent $9,100 at Home Depot for “building supplies” between Nov. 2015 and Sept. 2017. The senator’s campaign disclosures further indicate she spent $140 at Home Depot in June 2018 for “office supplies.” State campaign finance officials could scrutinize such expenditures.
Robinson is the first sitting lawmaker in Tennessee to be charged since Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, faced allegations of tax fraud in 2016. Armstrong was convicted and sentenced to 6 months house arrest, 300 hours of community service and three years probation. He resigned his seat after the conviction.
On Wednesday, Brandon Puttbrese, a spokesperson for Senate Democrats said the case should be resolved in “by a court of law, not by the court of public opinion.”
“It’s clear that Sen. Robinson’s work in the state legislature on behalf of her constituents is not in question here today. Just like every other American, Sen. Robinson deserves the presumption of innocence and due process under the law,” he said.
Citing ongoing legal proceedings, Puttbrese directed all further question to Robinson’s attorney. © Phillip Jackson, Commercial Appeal Amber Sherman (far left), Mario Giles (middle left), Evetty Satterfield (middle right), Sen. Katrina Robinson discuss the state of black millennials during a panel discussion inside of the National Civil Rights Museum on Saturday, March 2, 2019.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who leads the Senate Democrats, did not immediately respond to phone calls and text messages.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said he did not have any initial reaction to the charges being filed.
Since entering office in 2019, Robinson sponsored 85 bills, five of which became law, which largely focused on education.
Federal agents searched school in February
The FBI executed search warrants at Robinson’s home and business on Feb. 21. People working at nearby businesses reported seeing people in FBI gear taking filing cabinets out of The Healthcare Institute’s offices.
Toranio Bishop, master barber at the nearby Detroit Barbershop, said he saw what appeared to be FBI agents at 7 a.m. He then noticed several students arrive at the school and then immediately leave. At about 12:15 p.m., the doors to The Healthcare Institute were locked.
The Healthcare Institute’s website said that Robinson secured the grant funding she is now accused of using for person benefit “with no formal training or education in grant writing.” © Ariel Cobbert / The Commercial Appeal State Sen. Katrina Robinson speaks on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn., after being charged with theft and embezzlement involving government programs and wire fraud,.
“This funding is used to provide scholarships for people like those that she mentored looking for a jumpstart to their education,” according to the website.
In 2019, Robinson was quoted in the Memphis Business Journal saying that the school was seeking Title IV approval from the U.S. Department of Education.
According to Robinson’s legislative biography, she is a registered nurse who received her nursing degree from Union University in Jackson.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Reporters Laura Testino, Micaela Watts, Joel Ebert and Natalie Allison contributed to this story.