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State ethics panel advances ouster of Sen. Katrina Robinson

Despite objections by the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators and the Shelby County Legislative Democratic Caucus, the Republican-led Tennessee Senate’s ethics committee on Thursday recommended removing Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) from office because of a recent wire fraud conviction.

Pressing ahead over Robinson’s objections that she had short notice of the hearing and is still awaiting sentencing, the panel voted to move her case in front of the full Senate at a yet-to-be-announced date.

Ahead of Thursday’s decision, the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators sent a letter to the ethics committee detailing caucus members’ concerns that “the actions of this Committee appear extremely premature and could possibly violate Senator Robinson’s constitutional rights as a sitting State Senator, along with her constituency.”

The caucus also asserted in its letter that the ethics committee should afford Robinson “the same due process the courts granted her. … There has not been enough information shared by this committee to members, and the public has shared this concern as well.”

A fair and unbiased opportunity to let Robinson make her case was “in the best interest of the Tennessee Legislature and the Tennesseans we represent,” the caucus members said in the letter. “The members of the TBCSL express our unequivocal and unwavering support for Senator Robinson to be heard and truly appreciate her service to the State of Tennessee.”

Robinson, who represents District 33, said she was notified of the hearing last Friday (Jan. 14) but was denied a delay that her attorney requested because of a scheduling conflict, leaving her without legal counsel at Thursday’s hearing. The panel previously found probable cause to remove her during a closed-door session.

Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin)

“I understand that there is still a pending sentencing, pending a final order from the judge, but I believe that there is enough information that is before us now that warrants this being contemplated” by the full Senate, said Republican Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who moved to recommend expulsion if the Senate finds the ethics violation.

Prosecutors accused Robinson of using more than $600,000 in federal grant money awarded to a school for health care workers she operated to pay for personal expenses. The judge acquitted her on 15 of 20 charges alleging misuse of federal funds in Memphis, where the school is located. On Sept. 30, a jury convicted her of four of five counts of wire fraud.

The judge later dismissed two more of those charges but wrote that “sufficient evidence was presented at trial for the jury to conclude that Robinson committed wire fraud” through the remaining two counts. Those two charge Robinson with using about $3,400 in federal funds to pay for her wedding expenses in 2016.

Robinson is scheduled to be sentenced in March. She has maintained her innocence but has declined to say whether she will resign from her elected position.

Tennessee’s state law and Constitution contain provisions that disqualify people convicted of felonies from eligibility to hold public office.

Robinson said she was “taken aback” by how the process unfolded in the legislature.

“I feel like I was not heard and I felt like important questions were not answered,” Robinson said. “I felt like misinformation was provided to the public and that is a continuation of what has happened during this whole case.”

Robinson also questioned, “How can someone expect to get a fair hearing in front of a committee that’s made up of four Republicans and one Democrat? Four men and one woman. Four white men and one Black woman.”

Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican who has called for Robinson to resign after she was convicted, said the committee considered “not only her explicit legal status but also the ethical and moral failings indicative in the charges against her.”

“The removal of a senator under these circumstances is a very serious and historically unprecedented step,” McNally said in a statement. “This is not something we consider lightly.”

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis).

Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), a member of the ethics panel, said the push was premature and voted in favor of a delay to let Robinson have her attorney present. Akbari also said it could prove a “slippery slope” to seek removal on alleged behavior that preceded a lawmaker’s election and time in office.

“I have not seen a proceeding where you started with 48 counts, went down to 20, went down to five, went to a conviction of four, or guilty verdict of four, had two overturned. There are two more left,” Akbari said. “Anything can happen before that final conviction notice.”

Republicans countered that Robinson could have her attorney on hand as the full Senate considers expelling her.

In its letter to members of the ethics panel, the Shelby County Legislative Democratic Caucus also argued that action taken “prior to the court issuing a final ruling on this matter would be premature and could potentially deny Senator Robinson her constitutional rights.

“An adverse and preemptive decision by this committee could also harm the citizens of the 33rd Senatorial District and Shelby County, who duly elected Senator Robinson to serve their interests at the Tennessee General Assembly.”

Robinson was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 2018.

 (This story reflects a report by Jonathan Mattise of the Associated Press and a contribution by Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi.)

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