by Vivian Jones
Indicted Tennessee state Sen. Katrina Robinson has traveled extensively to conferences on the state’s dime during her time in office, costing Tennessee taxpayers $17,934.56 in the past 20 months – nearly 10 times the average amount of state spending on conference travel for her Senate colleagues.
A federal grand jury indicted Robinson, D-Memphis, last month on 24 counts of embezzlement involving government programs and 24 counts of wire fraud.
Since taking office in January 2019, Robinson has attended nine conferences – many out-of-state – with expenses paid by the state, administrative data shows. Robinson also collected more than $6,000 in per diem pay on conference days.
Robinson attended conferences of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Dallas and Charlotte, N.C.; a Women in Government conference in Chicago; an annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington; a National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women conference in Chicago; a conference of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Nashville; an Evolution of Marijuana Policy Summit by the National Foundation for Women Legislators in Denver; and a Council of State Governments Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Expenses paid by the state for these trips include conference registration fees, hotels, car rentals, parking, taxis and flight change fees.
Robinson claimed she did not travel significantly more than her colleagues.
“My travel record is consistent with the average amount seen among most senators, as our travel policy is quite different than state representatives,” Robinson said in a statement to The Center Square.
State data tells a different story, however.
The average state-covered expenditure for conference travel among Robinson’s Senate colleagues over the same time frame was just over $1,800. Only two other senators billed the state for more than $5,000 in travel expenses since January 2019, with neither total greater than $7,000. Of the 20 Senators who collected per diem pay for time attending conferences, only 11 billed the state for expenses such as airfare, hotels or parking.
While most Tennessee lawmakers in the House and Senate did not make a state-paid trip in the past 20 months, it is not uncommon for legislators to attend conferences to discuss model legislation, most commonly the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Many Black legislators in Tennessee also attend meetings of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
All requests for state-paid travel are approved through the Senate clerk’s office on a case-by-case basis.
“Only non-political, policy-focused conferences and meetings are approved,” Adam Kleinheider, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, told The Center Square in an email. “National and regional legislative conferences and other similar travel are opportunities to share information on the best public policy procedures and practices. Lt. Governor McNally believes Tennessee benefits from the sharing of ideas that occur at these conferences.”
Robinson said she appreciated the opportunities to learn.
“As a first-term legislator who began service with no prior legislative experience, I have welcomed a number of recommendations and invitations for educational and developmental opportunities from my colleagues and leader,” Robinson said.
“In my first year I was blessed to be elected to national leadership roles in organizations that elevate Black policy matters as well as women’s issues,” Robinson said. “I have also been nominated to multiple national committees on education and health. These positions require me to travel with other legislators as approved by our speaker’s office.”
The Senate Democratic Caucus noted nine senators who live outside Middle Tennessee had higher overall state-reimbursed travel and per diem expense totals for 2019 than Robinson, and eight have higher reimbursement totals in 2020.
However, totals provided by the caucus do not include expenses such as airfare or parking, and they include travel reimbursements and per diems for all required legislative business between legislative sessions, including required committee attendance, attendance at special legislative sessions and office work such as drafting legislation and meeting with constituents.
In conference travel alone, including noted state expenditures on airfare and taxis, Robinson has traveled on the state’s dime more often and more expensively than any other state legislator, including House and Senate leadership.
Robinson is accused of stealing more than $600,000 in federal grants meant for her health care education business and using the funds to pay for personal expenses, including clothing and beauty products, a vehicle for her daughter, wedding and honeymoon expenses, legal fees for her divorce and a campaign event.
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Vivian Jones reports on Tennessee and South Carolina for The Center Square. Her writing has appeared in the Detroit News, The Hill, and publications of The Heartland Institute.