Tennessee state senator charged with stealing federal funds

ADRIAN SAINZ

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee state senator has been charged with stealing more than $600,000 in federal funds received by a health care company she directed and using the money to pay for her wedding and other personal expenses, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

A criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday charges state Sen. Katrina Robinson with theft and embezzlement involving government programs and wire fraud, U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant said in a news release.

Robinson, a Democrat elected to the General Assembly in 2018 from a Memphis district, is also the director of The Healthcare Institute, which provides training for jobs in the health care field, prosecutors said.

The Memphis-based school received received more than $2.2 million in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

From 2015 through 2019, Robinson stole more than $600,000 and used it to pay for her wedding and honeymoon, a 2016 Jeep Renegade for her daughter, travel and entertainment for her family, and an event for her state Senate campaign, prosecutors said.

She also used the money to pay for legal fees for her divorce, home improvements and a snow cone business operated by her children, prosecutors said.

The FBI searched the school and her home in February. FBI agents visited her home again on Tuesday, FBI spokesman Joel Siscovic said.

If convicted, Robinson faces a possible sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison. Robinson would be up for re-election in 2022.

During a news conference, Robinson's attorney Janika White said federal prosecutors were using a statute to charge Robinson that is “broad and overreaching" and Robinson would be vindicated. White said Robinson is a nurse who has been traveling outside of the state to help treat patients during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Robinson, who is Black, said she will continue serving her district in the Senate “with the same integrity, the same passion that I've demonstrated since you've elected me to this office.”

“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,” Robinson said.

Lt. Governor Randy McNally will be asking the Senate Ethics Committee to look into the “serious criminal charges,” spokesman Adam Kleinheider said in an email.

In a statement, the Senate Democratic Caucus said Robinson's work in the state Legislature “is not in question" and she “deserves the presumption of innocence and due process."

According to its website, The Healthcare Institute was founded in January 2015. Its certified nursing assistant program was introduced that July.

The school received a grant from the Health and Human Services Department for a certified nursing assistant program focused on geriatric populations and educational programs. The school also includes phlebotomy and electrocardiographic technician instruction.

An FBI affidavit alleges the federal funds were deposited into the school's bank account for its operations. The funds were then “commingled indiscriminately with personal expenditure for the benefit of Robinson and her immediate family,” FBI special agent Matthew Pruitt wrote.

The FBI said the department received a complaint from someone who claimed Robinson used the school's funds to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag for $550.

Robinson also spent thousands on credit card payments, hair and beauty supplies, and improvements to her body aesthetics business and her house, including a wrought iron front door valued at more than $5,000, the FBI said.

She also spent more than $4,700 on makeup, video services and a party for her wedding, and $5,000 on a trip to Jamaica, the FBI said.

Over a four-year period, Robinson paid herself $169,134 more than she was allowed to under salary amounts permitted by the federal grant, the affidavit said.

The criminal complaint details the charges against Robinson and the facts that support the allegations. A federal grand jury will also decide whether to formally indict her.

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AP reporter Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville, Tennessee.

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