Investigators: Tennessee state senator opens up about multi-count federal indictment

Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 9:58 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For more than a year, Memphians have seen the headlines: ‘Tennessee State Senator Katrina Robinson indicted.’

Not once, but twice. In one case, accused of theft and embezzlement of government funds. In another, fraud and money laundering.

Both cases center around her nurse training school. In her first TV one-on-one, Robinson agreed to sit down with Action News 5′s Kontji Anthony to talk about the case just days before the trial.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Robinson and her attorney, former West Tennessee U.S. attorney, Lawrence Laurenzi, allowed our camera in the boardroom of Robinson’s nurse training school.

“I’ve been silent for a long time,” she said when asked what she hopes will come of the interview.

The senator and registered nurse said she wanted to share her side of things and answer any lingering questions.

“I really wanted to be able to speak up for people who’ve been waiting to hear from me,” Robinson said. “Now that we’re getting closer to my exoneration, I want to make sure that people understand what that journey has been like.”

In 2015, the then-freshman senator founded The Healthcare Institute Incorporated on Winchester Road in Memphis. Robinson was an ICU nurse at Methodist University Hospital, training nursing assistants.

“I would meet people from all walks of life who wanted an opportunity to get into healthcare and to get into the medical profession, but didn’t have the resources or the time just, like the challenges that I faced,” she recalled.

In launching her own school, she applied for and won, a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) federal grant from 2015 to 2019, providing $2.2 million in grant money to her school’s Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program to train nurses to care for the elderly. She could give scholarships to low-income students.

Fast forward to July 2020, Robinson stood outside court in downtown Memphis, sending a message to her constituents.

“I am committed to continuing to serve,” she said to the row of live news media cameras after a federal grand jury handed up a 48-count indictment, claiming Robinson stole more than $600,000 from her school.

From her nurse training school that Tuesday, she described her thoughts when the charges were made public.

“To be blindsided with charges like this, and the reports to the media, and just the recklessness, I mean it just, it brought me to my knees,” she said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a different take. According to an affidavit obtained by the Action News 5 Investigators, the FBI alleges Robinson used hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants to support a lavish lifestyle.

The investigation was sparked by an anonymous woman who reported to the FBI she sold Robinson a $550 Louis Vuitton handbag.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that it’s an anonymous tip that sparked a whole investigation. That is really in search of some wrongdoing that doesn’t exist,” Robinson said, when asked what she thinks of the origin of the case.

But the FBI agent laid out pages of purchases: A more than $16,000 tab at Best Buy, a more than $33,000 in beauty products and other retail items, a trip to Jamaica, Grizzlies tickets, a Jeep, a retirement account for herself and her children, a cruise and more.

When asked if she used any money for those items, Laurenzi stepped in. “Let me say that Miss Robinson is charged in this multi-count indictment, with stealing money from the school that we are sitting in,” he said.

Laurenzi said the logic doesn’t make sense to steal from yourself, that Robinson’s simply the sole owner of a successful for-profit corporation who put in the work and should reap the rewards.

“She made a profit, just like any other company, and as a sole owner of the company, Robinson is able to enjoy or take those profits,” Laurenzi said. “And she is authorized to do everything that she did.”

The feds say Robinson was sending money back and forth between her Pinnacle Bank account for the federal grant and her Regions Bank account for the school.

When asked if there was any mixing of the money between her personal account and the bank account, Laurenzi stepped in again.

“We’re not going to get into the facts of the case. I believe that she’s answered that, that there are two business accounts,” he said.

Laurenzi said every dollar ended up where it was supposed to go.

“The Regions account as the operating account, just like any other business, and the money was commingled with the HRSA funds, which is the grant that is in question. And the HRSA funds included profits for tuition, but there were also funds from other sources too, going into the Regions account,” said Laurenzi.

He pointed out that as a grant, not a federal contract, he said there were no limitations on how the money could be spent.

When asked point-blank, if Robinson misused any federal funding, she answered, “I did not.”

In January 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office reduced the counts against Robinson from 48 to 17 after Laurenzi noticed duplicate charges.

“We filed respective motions of defects in the indictment and the government agreed because they drastically reduced the counts that were originally charged,” he explained.

At the same time, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced a second set of wire fraud and money laundering charges sparked by a $10,000 line-item in Robinson’s training school bank account on November 17, 2017. It read “Tuition refund - LPN withdrawal” to one 32-year-old Brooke Boudreaux.

When asked what she knows of Brooke Boudreaux, Robinson said, “She was just someone who applied to go to school.”

But the U.S. attorney claims Boudreaux and another accomplice, 59-year-old Katie Ayers, conspired with Robinson to steal and launder money from a man named R.S. in a string of text messages. Investigators allege the scheme involved getting R.S. to pay $14,470 for Boudreaux to go to nursing school.

The FBI says Robinson refunded $10,082 to Boudreaux and kept roughly $4,000 for herself. The feds released text messages from Robinson’s cell. In one thread exchange October 10, 2017, from Robinson to Ayers, the text reads:

How much money do you need to get out of this transaction? Ayers responds, “What is the most for all classes? All paperwork has been turned in to Sharita,” and Robinson’s text reads, “I was asking so I know how much to charge him so I can get some cash.”

When asked for a response to some of the text messages saying ‘I need cash,’ Laurenzi responded, “We are not going to get into the particulars. It has been our position all along as we filed in papers that in that particular case, the alleged victim was not a victim. He has indicated that he never felt that he was defrauded.”

Meanwhile, Robinson questions the motivations behind the indictments.

“I don’t feel like I would be prosecuted if I weren’t a black woman. If I had not done what I’ve done as far as making a way for myself and others, pulling myself up by my bootstraps, creating a business that created a profit, but also supported our community. I don’t feel that I would be in this position,” she said.

The school continues to graduate nurses without the funding.

“I’m being charged with stealing from this business that I have created, my baby that I put my all into. When really, the government has stolen from this business. Our students lost all tuition support, whether it’s Shelby County, the State of Tennessee, the Veterans Administration, all before an indictment was even made, all because of the way the government sensationalized this,” she added.

Robinson and her attorney said they’re hoping for a fair trial.

“We submit that after the jury hears the facts and the law, that she will walk out the back of the court when this is over, a free person,” said Laurenzi.

The trial for the first case begins September 13 and there is a hearing for the second case Friday. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment.

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