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Tennessee State Senator Embezzled $600,000 in Federal Money, U.S. Says

A Tennessee state senator has been charged with stealing more than $600,000 in federal grant money and using it to pay for campaign events and personal expenses, including her wedding, honeymoon and subsequent divorce, federal prosecutors announced on Wednesday.

The senator, Katrina Robinson, 39, faces counts of theft and embezzlement involving government programs and wire fraud, according to a criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

The money in question was intended to fund a nurse training program at a vocational school run by Ms. Robinson, but instead was siphoned off to add to her salary, help fund her other businesses and pay personal expenses, among other things, according to an affidavit filed with the complaint.

In addition to serving as a state senator, Ms. Robinson, a Memphis Democrat elected in 2018 who represents Shelby County, is director of the Healthcare Institute, a for-profit college that provides training programs for certified nursing assistant, phlebotomist and licensed practical nursing. Ms. Robinson, a registered nurse, founded the school in 2015, according to its website.

According to the complaint, the Healthcare Institute was awarded over $2.2 million in federal grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, from 2015 to 2019. The Healthcare Institute was awarded the grant under the condition that it would be used to train nurse assistants to care for geriatric patients and provide need-based scholarships for the program.

An investigation into Ms. Robinson began in 2016, when an anonymous complaint to the Health and Human Services Department alleged that she had used $550 of the grant money to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag, according to the affidavit.

Based on bank records, investigators found evidence that Ms. Robinson had given herself a $25,400 performance bonus, paid herself more than her allocated salary and transferred $54,000 to a retirement fund, according to charging documents. The discrepancies amount to $169,134 more in salary than she should have been paid under the grant terms, according to court prosecutors.

“These expenses required consultation with, and prior approval from Health Resources and Services Administration, neither of which occurred,” the complaint said. “Further, according to Health Resources and Services Administration representatives, if approval had been sought for these items, it would not have been granted.”

Investigators found grant money had been transferred to a separate bank account, from which “legitimate expenditures for THI’s operations were commingled indiscriminately with personal expenditures for the benefit of Robinson and her immediate family,” the complaint said, referring to the Healthcare Institute.

Among the items listed in the complaint as purchased with grant money were a 2016 Jeep Renegade — bought for Ms. Robinson’s daughter — clothing and beauty products, home furnishings — including a wrought iron front door valued at more than $5,000 — and equipment and supplies for her children’s snow cone business, Kool Kidz Konez.

The money was also used to pay for Ms. Robinson and her family to travel to Jamaica, pay off her personal debt and fund a State Senate campaign event, the complaint continued.

The Health and Human Services Department began the investigation and was later joined by the F.B.I., which filed an affidavit with the criminal complaint.

“Protection of the U.S. Treasury and federal grant programs against theft, fraud, waste and abuse is a top priority of this office and the Department of Justice,” D. Michael Dunavant, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said in a statement on Wednesday. “We commend the F.B.I. and the HHS-OIG for their diligent and thorough investigation in this case.”

Janika White, Ms. Robinson’s lawyer, declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint but noted that the claim was not an indictment.

“As for Senator Robinson, she is very strong,” Ms. White said. “She’s a fighter and she’s been out here doing what we all want people to do — step up and serve others. That’s what she’s been doing, and right now all she can do is stand on her record and hope that people allow the facts to unfold and allow her story to be told at the appropriate time.”

The case is expected to be presented to a grand jury, the prosecutor’s office said.

If convicted on the charges, Ms. Robinson could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Adam Kleinheider, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is a Republican, said that because of the “serious criminal charges,” Mr. McNally would ask the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate.

In a statement, the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus said, “Senator Robinson’s work in the state legislature on behalf of her constituents is not in question here today.”

“Just like every other American, Senator Robinson deserves the presumption of innocence and due process under the law,” the statement said. “Her case should be resolved by a court of law, not by the court of public opinion.”

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