Trial underway for Tennessee state senator facing 20 federal charges

Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 8:54 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - With the jury now seated, opening statements and witness testimony took place during day two of the trial of Tennessee State Senator Katrina Robinson.

Robinson, who faces 20 counts of theft, embezzlement, and wire fraud, sat quietly between her two attorneys while the prosecution gave its opening statement.

They alleged to the jury that Robinson spent tens of thousands of dollars of federal grant money, $600,000 in total, that was intended to support her nurse training business, the Healthcare Institute, referred in the courtroom as THI.

Among the allegations, the prosecution said Robinson used these funds to pay for her wedding, her honeymoon, a new car, even her 2018 senatorial campaign, though it was unclear if they meant a portion or all of it.

Robinson’s attorney, Lawrence Laurenzi, began his defense with a simple statement: “Katrina Robinson didn’t steal.”

Laurenzi gave the jury a timeline of THI, formed in 2015 as an LLC, but then later changed to a corporation in 2017.

These changes, he said, were made known to the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA), the faction of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who approved the grant for Robinson in 2015, and that the success of the school yielded profits that were used to make the purchases in question, not by using government grant funds.

The grant, worth $2 million for a period of four years (2015-2019), is part of the Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program (GWEP), a program that started in 2015, and THI was among the first to receive a grant, as it specialized in training certified nurses assistants (CNA) to assist in geriatric care for Shelby County.

The two witnesses called to the stand Tuesday were the HRSA project officer, who is also the lead of GWEP, and the HRSA grants management specialist (GMS) who was over THI’s grant.

After hours of questioning, we learned several things about the grant issuing process.

The grant that was awarded to Robinson and THI is what’s referred to as a “cooperative agreement.”

According to the witness, Robinson had to provide quarterly reports to HRSA and the witness about the progress of THI and its finances, as well as information on the students (i.e. race, age ranges, income status, current profession, and if they came from urban or rural areas, among other categories).

The defense went through each quarterly report from early 2016 to late 2017, listing the progress of THI in its growing number of students.

The grant money was used predominantly to pay tuition for students, roughly $900 of the $1,300 tuition for the CNA program.

Using a quarterly report from July 30, 2017, stating THI had 120 students awarded CNAs, “When you do the math, that’s over $100,000,” Laurenzi said during opening statements.

The defense was implying that, indeed, this money was going toward tuition and not toward a lavish lifestyle the prosecution accuses Robinson of using the funds for.

What the prosecution would later reveal through their questions of the two HRSA employees is that these reports came from Robinson herself, the data justifying the financial records.

It seemed there was no investigation into Robinson’s reports to confirm if what she was reporting was accurate, though they added they had no reason to believe Robinson misused these grant funds.

The prosecution asked the first HRSA employee, the project officer, if HRSA or HHS had access to the bank statements from the bank accounts receiving the funds, to see where the money was going.

“No,” she said.

Day two may be under wraps, but it’s anticipated there are many more ahead. The trial is estimated to take three weeks.

Day three begins Wednesday at 9 a.m.

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