By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama on Wednesday announced a noon press conference for Thursday.
According to his defense counsel, charges are expected tomorrow against Joel Gilbert, a partner at Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham LLP, in connection legal services he provided his client the Drummond Company.
Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham, has pleaded guilty to bribery, corruption, fraud, and tax evasion in connection to his efforts to try to block the expansion of a North Birmingham EPA Superfund site to include the neighborhoods of Tarrant and Inglenook.
Robinson alleges that Gilbert facilitated a deal where he received illicit payments through a fraudulent charity he owned to oppose the superfund site expansion. Drummond owns ABC Coke which is one of the companies that allegedly polluted the North Birmingham site and would have been responsible for funding the site cleanup.
Gilbert is represented by Jack Sharman, a partner at Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC.
Sharman provided the following statement:
“Joel Gilbert is innocent of these charges,” Sharman said. “He did not bribe anyone. This is a case that never should have been brought. Joel represented a client in a legal dispute with the EPA, a powerful and, in this case, over-reaching federal agency. Everything he did while representing that client was lawful and ethical. He is a longtime partner at a leading law firm. A lawyer with a reputation for honesty and integrity, he did what is routine for good counselors to do for corporate and individual clients every day – he engaged a consultant through a written contract to perform real and lawful services.
“The Government has the burden of proof at trial, not Joel, but the evidence – including emails, text messages, contracts, billing records, environmental testing and witness testimony – will prove that Joel is innocent.”
“We will tell the whole story at trial,” Sharman said. “Because of the recent adverse publicity about these events, however, a few basic facts should be noted.”
“The consulting contract at issue is both lawful and common,” Sharman said. “Balch & Bingham, Joel’s law firm, entered into a contract with the Oliver Robinson Foundation, on behalf of the firm’s client, Drummond Company, to help with a grassroots effort to understand what EPA was doing in North Birmingham and Tarrant and, where appropriate, to address factual inaccuracies and faulty science. Such contracts and efforts are legal under both federal and state law, including the Alabama Ethics Code. The Alabama Ethics Code is complex, but it explicitly permits public officials, including state legislators and their affiliates, to do consulting work for a fee – the type of arrangement that the Government is now trying to say is criminal.
“The records will show that the payments under the contract to the Foundation were for community outreach work performed by the Foundation, not to bribe Mr. Robinson.”
“If Oliver Robinson did something he was not supposed to with the fees paid to the Foundation for the Foundation’s work, Joel did not know about it or approve of it,” Sharman said.
“Further, when Oliver Robinson attended a meeting of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, he did two things,” Sharman said. “He asked questions and he suggested that, if Drummond was liable for pollution, the company should be held accountable – hardly the actions of a legislator who was improperly influenced. The written transcript of the Commission meeting is clear about these statements.”
“Joel has more than 15 years of legal experience and is widely respected. The facts will show that he is innocent and that he acted in good faith,” Sharman concluded. “He is going to trial. At trial, we will present all of the evidence, not just the fragments of information and innuendo provided we expect will be found in the indictment.”
Sharman was recently hired by the Alabama House Judiciary Committee to be the special prosecutor in Gov. Robert Bentley’s impeachment. That effort ended when Bentley resigned in April.
There is speculation that the Drummond company executive named in the Robinson indictment will also be indicted on Thursday. These indictments have been expected since the court accepted Robinson’s guilty plea.
Mike Thompson, CEO of Thompson Tractor Company and finance chair of Sen. Luther Strange’s campaign, was listed as the Secretary of the allegedly bogus charity.
As Alabama attorney general, Strange wrote two letters to EPA opposing the Superfund site expansion. He received a campaign contribution following the release of each letter from Drummond.
Strange denies any wrongdoing or any knowledge of Robinson’s alleged illicit relationship with Gilbert, Balch & Bingham, and Drummond. He denied an earlier report that he had knowledge of the alleged payments to Robinson.
The Alabama Political Reporter expects to have more on this story sometime Thursday afternoon.