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The Senate Ethics Committee determined Thursday that state Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, violated the Senate code of ethics and recommended her expulsion due to her conviction on federal fraud charges.
Robinson will now face a full Senate vote based on the committee's recommendation.
The senator is awaiting a March sentencing date for two federal fraud charges related to the mismanagement of federal funds in connection to her leadership of a nursing school. Robinson's criminal trial focused on events that occurred prior to her 2018 election to the state Senate.
Following the committee vote, Robinson said she was "taken aback" by the process on Thursday.
Robinson had requested a delay so her attorney could join her, and the senator continually argued her federal case has not yet concluded, despite her conviction. A federal judge winnowed charges against Robinson from 20 to five during trial, and earlier this month acquitted Robinson for two of the four charges the jury found her guilty of last fall.
"We haven't even finished the legal process yet, and we've seen how this case has gone," Robinson said. "I think that in itself warrants this body being patient with the process. What is the hurry? One has to ask what is the hurry."
Robinson said her attorneys are "considering" a motion for reconsideration in the federal case due to "new developments," but no motion has been filed.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, suggested Robinson should step down voluntarily following the committee's findings.
"The Senate Ethics Committee conducted a fair and deliberative hearing on the complaints against Senator Robinson," McNally said in a statement. "They considered not only her explicit legal status but also the ethical and moral failings indicative in the charges against her.
"The committee found the charges against her violate the Code of Ethics of the Senate and require expulsion," McNally said. "The removal of a Senator under these circumstances is a very serious and historically unprecedented step. This is not something we consider lightly. I continue to hope Senator Robinson will reflect on the findings of the committee and choose to step down voluntarily in the best interest of the Senate."
Robinson initially requested a delay of the hearing earlier this week, after she was informed Friday the committee had found probable cause to hold a public hearing.
The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, the NAACP Memphis Branch and the Shelby County Democratic Legislative Caucus submitted letters to the Ethics Committee on Wednesday asking for a hearing delay pending a "final" court ruling in Robinson's federal case.
The committee voted along party lines to deny Robinson's request Thursday, with Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, voting to delay the hearing. Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon; Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin; Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown; and Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, voted to find Robinson in violation of Senate ethics.
After a brief recess to consider committee procedure, the committee voted again along party lines to recommend Robinson for expulsion if the Senate finds Robinson committed an ethical violation.
"The trial is on the floor of the Senate. This body is only here to make a recommendation to the full body,"Stevens said. "You will have the opportunity to have counsel on the floor, which is appropriate."
But Robinson questioned the impartiality of the ethics panel.
"How can someone expect to get a fair hearing in front of a committee that is made up of four Republicans and one Democrat? Four men and one woman. Four white men and one Black woman," Robinson told reporters. "It used to be there was supposed to an equal or comparable amount of Democrats to Republicans on the ethics committee."
It's unclear when the Senate could take up consideration of the committee's recommendation.
"I would urge, given the seriousness of this, that we make sure our colleague has adequate time to prepare and make sure her attorneys are here," Akbari said, asking the committee to provide plenty of notice to Robinson before it goes to the full Senate. "We really want this to be as fair a process as possible."
Robinson's legal case
Robinson successfully fought for an acquittal of two charges following her conviction on four charges last fall, but a federal judge in January denied a motion for a new trial.
A federal jury found Robinson guilty in September 2021 of four counts of wire fraud in connection to her leadership of a nursing school and the management of funds from a federal grant. Robinson was initially charged with mismanaging more than $600,000 of federal funds intended for scholarships and faced a 48-count indictment.
When the case went to trial in September 2021, charges were reduced to 20 counts, 15 of which Judge Sheryl Lipman dismissed. Robinson was found guilty of four charges related to less than $3,500, which prosecutors said Robinson used for wedding expenses.
Earlier this month, Lipman acquitted Robinson of two of those charges, finding prosecutors had insufficient evidence to prove she intentionally falsified records at The Healthcare Institute.
Akbari said Thursday she felt the committee's action was premature before final sentencing, given how the prosecution's case of 48 counts has fallen to two remaining charges.
Akbari said it also could be a "slippery slope" to judge a lawmaker's behavior prior to their election without a finalized criminal case.
"There are two more left — anything could happen before that final conviction notice is signed," Akbari said. "Therefore, I don’t think it’s right yet for us to move forward."
In a second federal fraud cause, Robinson agreed to enter into a pre-trial diversion program.
Robinson is not the only Shelby County senator facing legal woes. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, continues to serve in the General Assembly as he prepares for a federal trial over alleged campaign finance violations in a conspiracy to enrich a failed 2016 bid for Congress.
Kelsey, who has denied wrongdoing, was slated to face a jury in January but last month requested a delay of the trial, which is now set for January 2023.
Reach Melissa Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Committee recommends expulsion of Memphis Sen. Katrina Robinson