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Roberson and Gilbert both found guilty of federal corruption charges

Brandon Moseley

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Friday a federal jury today convicted prominent Birmingham attorney  Joel Iverson Gilbert and Drummond Coal executive David Lynn Roberson in a scheme to bribe a state legislator to use his office to lead efforts opposing proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actions in north Birmingham.

The convictions in the federal corruption trial were announced by U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. and Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation, Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Holloman.

The jury returned its verdicts after deliberating about 12 hours following more than three weeks of testimony before U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon. The jury found that Balch & Bingham partner Gilbert, age 67, and Drummond Company Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs Roberson, age 46, guilty of bribing then Alabama state Representative Oliver Robinson (D-Birmingham) to advocate for their employers’ opposition to EPA’s prioritization or expansion of the north Birmingham Superfund site. The indictment claims that the bribe came in the form of a lucrative consulting contract that paid Robinson $360,000 through his Oliver Robinson Foundation, a non-profit organization, between 2015 and 2016.
Drummond Company was a client of the Birmingham-based Balch & Bingham law firm.

The jury found Gilbert and Roberson guilty of bribery, honest services wire fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy.

Rep. Robinson pleaded guilty in September to the conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud, and tax evasion.

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“This case was not about the EPA,” Town said. “This case was not about pollution. This was a case about greed at the expense of too many.  The findings of guilt for these three individuals, by trial or plea, should forewarn anyone who would be corruptly motivated to act in similar unlawful interest. Voters deserve public officials who seek to represent them honestly and fairly. When elected officials, corporate executives or their lawyers violate our federal laws, they should expect to suffer the fate of these three guilty defendants. We appreciate the dedication of the federal agencies that worked tirelessly on this case.”

“Public corruption continues to be the top criminal priority for the FBI and those who violate the public’s trust must be held accountable,” Sharp said. “As long as corruption and greed exists, the FBI will work to bring them to the bar of justice.”

EPA had designated an area of north Birmingham, including the neighborhoods of Harriman Park, Fairmont and Collegeville, as a Superfund site after finding elevated levels of arsenic, lead and benzo(a)pyrene during soil sampling. In September 2013, EPA notified five companies, including Drummond-owned ABC Coke, that they could potentially be responsible for the pollution. Such a finding could have cost the company tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and fines.

EPA also proposed expanding the size of the Superfund site to include Tarrant and Inglenook.

In September 2014, EPA proposed adding the site, designated the 35th Avenue Superfund Site, to its National Priorities List, signaling that it required priority attention. Placement on the priorities list would have allowed EPA to use the federal Superfund Trust Fund to conduct long-term cleanup at the site, provided the State of Alabama agreed to pay 10 percent of the costs.

Roberson and Gilbert found powerful allies from both political parties in opposing EPA’s plans.

According to evidence at trial, Gilbert and Roberson were intent on protecting ABC Coke and Drummond from the tremendous potential costs associated with being held responsible for pollution in the 35th Avenue site. As part of their strategy to accomplish that goal, they began working to prevent expansion of the site or its placement on EPA’s priority list.

The defendants hired Robinson, whose legislative district adjoined the Superfund site, to persuade north Birmingham residents and governmental agencies to oppose EPA’s actions. According to documents and testimony, Balch made the payments to Robinson’s foundation, and then invoiced Drummond or the Alliance for Jobs and Economy, a tax-exempt organization whose account the defendant controlled, for reimbursement. At Gilbert’s and Roberson’s request, the invoices Balch sent to Drummond and to AJE were scrubbed of any reference to the Oliver Robinson Foundation.

One of Robinson’s first tasks was to appear before the Alabama Environmental Management Commission (AEMC) and the director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in February 2015 to advance the opposition to EPA’s plan. Robinson urged the AEMC to “narrow the list” of parties potentially responsible for the pollution in north Birmingham and argued that the Superfund designation or placement of the NPL could harm property values of residents in the area.

Robinson went before the AEMC as a state legislator and concealed from its members that Balch & Bingham and Drummond were paying him to represent their interests, according to testimony and other evidence.  Rep. Robinson also failed to inform EPA officials in an earlier meeting that he was working for Drummond and Balch & Bingham. Gilbert provided Robinson with talking points for that meeting, which Robinson secretly recorded and then provided the recording to Gilbert, according to testimony.

Evidence also showed that, in June 2015, Robinson voted, as a member of the Alabama House Rules Committee, to send to the floor an anti-EPA resolution that Gilbert had drafted. Gilbert prepared the resolution for the Alabama legislature knowing that Robinson would have a vote on it, at a time when Robinson’s foundation was working on a retainer contract with Balch.

The case against a fourth defendant, Balch & Bingham attorney Steve McKinney was dismissed by Judge Kallon.

The jury found Roberson guilty even though Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and Alabama Coal Association head George Barber testified as character witnesses for the Drummond executive.

The decades old industrial pollution in the area was discovered by environmentalist with GASP.  GASP has been advocating for the residents of the area, many who claim that their health ailments are related to the pollution in the air and the soil.  GASP brought these concerns to the EPA who agreed.  Their advocacy however has largely fallen on deaf ears with state of Alabama officials.

GASP Executive Director Michael Hanson told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Today was a great day for the people of north Birmingham and all of Alabama. It is rare that corruption is held to account, and it’s even more rare that those who do the corrupting are held accountable. And while we are thrilled about the fact that justice was upheld for the people of north Birmingham, we are cognizant of the fact that this is not the end, but rather a beginning.”

According to testimony from the trial, then Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) then Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R), Senate Rule Committee Chair Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia, other Balch & Bingham attorneys and partners, other Drummond executives, other area companies that donated to the Robinson charity, Birmingham head of the NAACP Hezekiah Jackson, and overwhelming bipartisan majorities of both Houses of the Alabama legislature were all involved with the three conspirators here in a greater effort to block EPA’s plans for the north Birmingham area, which tests high for the pollutants.  The political effort to limit EPA’s actions in North Birmingham, which has been widely reported on in the media, was not on trial here.

Town told APR that there was no wider criminal conspiracy and that only Roberson, Gilbert, and McKinney (who has since been dismissed from this case) had any knowledge of the actual corruption conspiracy with Rep. Robinson and that even other partners at Balch & Bingham and the other executives at Drummond had no knowledge of that criminal conspiracy.  No further indictments are expected.

Robinson resigned from the legislature in 2016, citing a conflict of interest created by his daughter being hired by Gov. Bentley to advance the governor’s legislative agenda.  Robinson pled guilty in 2017 and agreed to work with federal prosecutors.  His testimony in this trial was critical in implicating Roberson and Gilbert.

Judge Kallon will set a date for Roberson and Gilbert’s sentencing.  At Roberson’s advanced age, he could potentially spend the rest of his life in prison.

GASP has pending civil litigation and the EPA is likely to also take administrative action based on Friday’s convictions.

The 35th Avenue Superfund site still has not been prioritized.

 

Economy

“They’re going to have to make some hard decisions:” Federal prison officers brace for second missed paycheck

Chip Brownlee

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When the federal government has shut down in the past few years, correctional officers at a federal women’s prison in West Alabama were optimistic. They knew it would be short.

They were even optimistic — as optimistic as you can be when you’re not getting paid for your work — when they faced their first shutdown in 2013 after Federal Correctional Institution Aliceville became operational earlier in that same year.

Until this shutdown, the 2013 lapse in federal funding was the longest they’d experienced. This one is different. At 28 days and counting, the current partial shutdown is the longest in American history.

“There’s no comparison,” said Terrence Windham, a correctional officer who has worked at the facility for nearly seven years. “With this shutdown, there is a whole lot less optimism that things are going to change anytime soon.”

Windham is right. That reality he and his colleagues are facing — the reality of not knowing when they’re going to get their next paycheck or whether they’ll be able to pay the mortgage, their rent or utility bills — shows no sign of changing anytime soon.

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And they have an 18-month-old child to care for, too.

Windham is among the 36,000 Federal Bureau of Prisons employees who are deemed “essential.” That means he has to work during the shutdown even though he won’t get paid until after the government reopens.

In total, an estimated 800,000 federal employees nationally, and 5,000 in Alabama, are facing a similar situation. They’re either working without pay or at home without pay.

I. “They want their money”

Negotiations between Congressional leadership and the president are stalled. They haven’t met since President Donald Trump walked out of a meeting earlier this month. Things are frozen.

Windham’s pay is frozen. So is his wife’s. She works at FCI Aliceville, too.

But the bills aren’t frozen.

Windham

“And so you kind of have to figure out, okay, what bill are you going to pay and what are you going to hold off on,” Windham said. Earlier this month, a credit card bill tried to charge one of their accounts. There was no money left.

“I had to kind of shuffle some things around to pay that bill, but if I don’t get paid by next month, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Windham said.

Thankfully, the Windhams are from Aliceville. They have family and friends to fall back on, and their family owns a funeral home, so he has some extra money to help pay the bills.

Other officers aren’t so fortunate.

“Creditors and lenders don’t care that it’s a shutdown,” Windham said. “They want their money. It’s not as simple as a lot of people think it is.”

The prison recently hired a number of new staff, too. Because of the schedule they started on, some of them haven’t gotten a full paycheck in more than a month Their first checks were only partial checks because the shutdown started just after they started.

“And they’re new staff. They don’t have a nest egg,” Windham said. “You know — young folks trying to get started in life. So this is very difficult for them. And for the older staff, mortgage payments are an issue.”

Things are already hard at FCI Aliceville. But they’re going to get worse next Friday. That’ll be the day they miss their second paycheck. Paying one month of bills is possible. Few families have enough savings to last beyond that.

“This second check is going to be the real cutter,” Windham said. “It hurt a lot of people, this first one, but the next one is going to be horrendous.”

It’s not just missing pay. For some, it’s extra costs. Most correctional officers at the prison don’t live in Aliceville, a small town of fewer than 3,000 people situated about 25 miles east of the Mississippi state line.

Most live in Tuscaloosa or Columbus, Mississippi. Both cities are nearly an hour’s drive away. Before the shutdown, workers were able to take federally subsidized transportation to and from work. Now they’re having to pay out-of-pocket for gas.

“Now people are having to use gas and spend money that they normally wouldn’t have spent to get to work,” Windham said.

II. “It is still a prison”

Nationally, the average salary of a federal correctional officer ranges from $40,000 to $50,000 a year, and they work in a rare federal government position that includes the likelihood of being harmed or attacked on the job.

Even at a lower security women’s prison like FCI Aliceville, there is still the possibility of danger.

“There are still fights that are going on,” Windham said. “There are still drugs being smuggled in. It is still a prison just with an extra stressor. That’s what I’m worried about — people thinking about their home life at work and then putting themselves in a dangerous situation.”

Despite the difficulties facing the officers, they’re trying to push through it. Overall, Windham, who also serves as the local Association of Federal Government Employees union president, said morale is okay, considering the situation.

“They’re working, they’re having fun, making jokes about it, trying to make light of the situation,” he said. “They’re trying to keep their mind off of it. But when they’re at home, sitting alone or with their spouses, with their kids, they don’t know whether that next check is coming.”

Nationwide, The Washington Post has reported that the number of officers calling in sick has nearly doubled. In Aliceville, the union is encouraging workers to show up. Not showing up, they say, only affects those who do.

“We’re trying to encourage people to come to work, and they’re buying it, but it’s hard to buy something for such a long time. It’s painful to keep working and not get paid,” he said. Abandoning their job is not a message they want to send to politicians.

Nor is it a message they want to send to their inmates.

Some inmates work in prison. They get paid. Sometimes it’s as little as a quarter an hour, but they are still getting their checks, while the correctional officers aren’t.

“I’m not going to say all of them, but some of them here locally have made comments that they’re getting paid, and we are not — kind of jabbing at us,” he said. “So when you have to deal with not getting paid and the inmates are laughing at you and joking, it doesn’t bode well for the safety and the security of this institution.”

III. An outpouring

Aliceville is small. Less than 3,000 people. When the prison arrived in 2013, Pickens County’s population jumped by nearly 1,000 people, including new inmates and staff. The prison was a boon to the local economy.

As of now, that boon has temporarily slowed. Fewer people are buying food and groceries. Fewer people are shopping at local stores because they just don’t have disposable money.

Windham, in the little free time he has not at the prison, is also a city councilman in Aliceville, where his family has long resided. His grandfather started a local funeral home.

“From a city standpoint, now we’re not able to sustain our tax base that we’re used to because people aren’t spending,” Windham said. “People aren’t going out and spending money. That’s how cities survive. Once that gets negated, it starts hitting the city home.”

Folk have stepped in to help, though. Churches and local businesses have been helping furloughed and unpaid employees. The water board and gas board are waiving some fees. And Alabama Power is working on a case-by-case basis to help federal employees with their utility bills.

“It’s tremendous the outpouring that has been going on so far,” Windham said. “But if this thing lasts months or years, you know, people can’t go without getting paid. That hurts the economy locally as well.”

IV. Telegram to Washington

Trump has said he’s willing to let the shutdown last for months or even years over his dispute with Congressional Democrats — and some Republicans — who have refused to provide $5.7 billion for a border wall when it doesn’t include a broader immigration reform package.

Windham and his fellow correctional officers have a message for Washington.

“While they’re getting their six-figure salaries, and we’re not getting our five-figure salaries — low five-figure salaries — we need them to do their jobs,” Windham told APR.

The prison is in Rep. Terri Sewell’s 7th Congressional District. Windham said Sewell and her staff have been on the phone with correctional staff repeatedly since the shutdown begin. Next week, she plans to feed the correctional officers, Windham said.

Sewell, in a statement to APR, placed the blame on Republicans.

“I am working hard every day to reopen government while the Republicans sinfully and irresponsibly hold hostage the paychecks of our federal workers,” Sewell said. “From the moment Congress went into session, I have voted seven times to reopen our government. I am continuing to work with leadership on a real path forward, but we need a willing partner in the White House. The Senate Majority Leader must take up our House-passed bills and end the shutdown now.”

The majority of the bills the House has passed were authored and passed by Republicans, namely Republican Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, in the Senate. But after Trump said he would refuse to sign them, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell halted the process.

“We don’t care about the wall,” Windham said. “If you want it, get it, and if you don’t want it, fine. But don’t use us a political pawn.”

Shelby started his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee with a lot of success. The Senate passed more timely budgets than it has since 1997. But the standoff over the border wall halted his progress.

“I am disappointed that this standoff has resulted in a prolonged partial government shutdown, which has hurt federal employees and their families throughout Alabama,” Shelby told APR. “I believe there is a way for us to work together to move toward serious negotiations involving the President and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.  It is critical that we find a solution that will fund the remaining 25 percent of the government for the good of the American people, and it is my hope that we can accomplish this as soon as possible.”

But McConnell has said the Senate won’t vote until an agreement is reached with the president.

“We just them to vote on something,” Windham said. “Let the president sign or not sign. But to not do anything is not an option anymore. Because on Friday, if people don’t get their checks, they’re going to have to make some hard decisions”

 

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Governor

Lieutenant governor picks deputy chief of staff

Chip Brownlee

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The lieutenant governor has selected his deputy chief of staff.

Jess Skaggs, a former Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries administrator, will be Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth’s deputy chief of staff, his office said Thursday.

“As lieutenant governor, I plan for my office to be the most active and engaged in Alabama’s history, and Jess Skaggs has the experience, dedication, and energy necessary to help make that plan a reality,” Ainsworth said. “Jess has a deep desire to serve his fellow Alabamians and to make our state an even better place to live for all of its citizens. I’m happy to have him on my team as we work to provide Alabama with more jobs, better schools, and a higher standard of ethics among its elected officials.”

Skaggs previously served as the deputy commissioner for external affairs in the department.

He spearheaded economic development opportunities for the Department of Agriculture and Industries in that role. He also worked with the Alabama Legislature to promote the state’s agricultural industry and assisted the commissioner with public policy research.

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Ainsworth was sworn in as lieutenant governor on Monday. He’ll begin presiding over the Senate when the Legislature returns for the 2019 session in March. Ainsworth said Monday that he plans to focus on economic development, education, job training and government ethics during his term.

Aside from his experience in the ADAI, Skaggs has other experience in the Legislature that could come in handy for the lieutenant governor. Skaggs worked closely with two senators and five state representatives as the delegation director for the Baldwin County Legislative Office. In that role, he oversaw constituent services, drafted and researched legislation, and coordinated community service grants for the delegation members.

Skaggs worked on the bill that authorized improvements to Gulf State Park and the Lodge at Gulf State Park. That was at the behest of former State Sen. Tripp Pittman, for whom he worked as a legislative aide. Pittman who chaired the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.

A graduate of Huntingdon College with a degree in political science and history, Skaggs has also worked on numerous political campaigns as a general consultant and fundraiser.

He and his wife, Charlanna, an attorney specializing in business law, have three daughters and one son.

 

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Corruption

Former Republican State Rep. Ed Henry pleads guilty

Brandon Moseley

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Former Alabama state Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to one count of aiding the theft of government property as part of a much larger Medicare fraud and kickback scheme.

Prosecutors agreed to waive 17 counts in the indictment and 15 counts in a related indictment in exchange for the guilty plea.

Federal prosecutors said that Rep. Henry’s role in the scheme cost the government more than $150,000. Prosecutors report in court filings that Henry cooperated with their efforts against other defendants and will recommend that his sentence be on the low end of the sentencing range. The charge carries a 10-year maximum sentence. Former state Representative Henry has also agreed to pay fines and restitution in the case.

The Alabama Media Group reports that Huntsville physician, Dr. Nicole Scruggs also pleaded guilty to a charge in a related case last week. Two other doctors have been charged in the case, including Decatur physician Punuru Reddy, who is scheduled to go to trial on February 4.

Henry was a partner in a medical clinic with Dr. Gilberto Sanchez. According to prosecutors, the clinic did not charge patients the $32 copay that Medicare requires. By waiving the copay that encouraged patients to come there over other providers and is a violation of the contract that clinics agree to when they agree to take Medicare patients. The fraud was uncovered in a larger investigation of pill mills and Dr. Sanchez and associates practice of over prescribing opioids.

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Henry was a very outspoken member of the legislature who criticized then Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, for his corruption. Henry also introduced articles of impeachment against then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R).

Henry is the fifth members of the 2010-2014 House of Representatives who have been found guilty of crimes while in office. Two others, Randy Davis, R-Daphne, and Jack Williams, R-Vestavia, have been indicted and are awaiting trial.

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Ivey attends kick-off construction on Airbus A220 manufacturing facility in Mobile

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey joined leaders of Airbus, top local officials and others at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley Wednesday for a groundbreaking ceremony to launch construction of the company’s new A220 aircraft manufacturing facility.

Airbus already manufactures the A320 family in Mobile. The new assembly line will satisfy the strong and growing U.S. demand for the A220 aircraft. The A220 is the newest offering in Airbus’ commercial aircraft product line, and create more than 400 full-time jobs in Mobile.

“This is a great day for Mobile and for Alabama,” Governor Ivey said. “Airbus’ growth plans will not only create new jobs for Alabamians but also strengthen the bonds that have developed between the global aerospace company and our state. Alabama has a long history in flight and, as this project shows, a bright future in the aviation industry.”

Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce Greg Canfield said that the A220 assembly line project represents an important milestone for the state’s robust and expanding aerospace sector.

“Airbus’ decision to launch production of A220 aircraft at a new assembly line in Mobile will act as a powerful catalyst for sustained growth in an industrial sector that is key to Alabama’s future,” Secretary Canfield said. “Airbus’ expanding presence in the Mobile aerospace cluster will spark significant job creation and spur additional aerospace investment in the region for many years.”

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Airbus CEO Tom Enders led the celebration and welcomed attendees including: Airbus executives, other industry executives, Airbus manufacturing employees, as well as state, national, and local dignitaries and community leaders.

Airbus manufactures the A320 family of aircraft in Mobile, as well as helicopters and satellites elsewhere in the U.S. It also operates an engineering center in Mobile, plus other facilities across the nation.

The Chairman and CEO of Airbus Americas, Jeff Knittel said that Airbus’ expansion in the United States reflects the company’s growing partnerships with customers, as well as with American supplier-partners, and the communities in which the company operates across the U.S.

“Our partnerships are growing again with the addition of an A220 manufacturing facility that will employ some 400 more employees at full rate,” Jeff Knittel said. “Together we’ve already put Mobile on the map in the world of global aviation, and together we are making a new mark for the future.”

Economic developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Airbus’ latest expansion, the construction of a new A220 aircraft manufacturing facility in Mobile, demonstrates Alabama’s position as a global leader in the aviation and aerospace industry.”

The new A220 assembly line will facilitate assembly of A220-100 and A220-300 aircraft for U.S. customers.

“The A220 Family is the newest addition to the Airbus family of commercial aircraft, designed for consumers in the 100 to 150 seat market,” Nicole Jones added. “Crews will construct the A220 assembly line at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, adjacent to the A320 production line already in operation. “

Aircraft production is planned to begin in third quarter of this year with the first delivery of an A220 assembled in Mobile scheduled for 2020. The new A220 production facilities will be complete by next year.

“Airbus has already announced significant news related to its current A320 facility in Mobile County,” Nicole Jones continued. “Within the past month, the company delivered its one hundredth (100th) made in Alabama plane to Frontier Airlines. Folks looking for employment should take note that Airbus plans to add new jobs this month (January 2019) and approximately 600 jobs over the next 18 months.”

Alabama is rapidly becoming a major global for aerospace research and aircraft production.

“Business analysts predict that by 2023, Alabama will be number 4 or 5 in the world for the production of commercial aircraft,” Nicole Jones concluded. “This is a testament to teamwork and strategic partnerships between the public and private sector as well as the quality, dedicated, and skilled workforce Alabamians provide and companies need. Alabama has a history of leadership in aerospace and aviation, and Airbus is an international pioneer in the industry. We are thankful to the team at Airbus for their continued commitment to our state, nation, and the world.”

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Roberson and Gilbert both found guilty of federal corruption charges

by Brandon Moseley Read Time: 7 min
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