By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
A Federal Grand Jury indicted two Birmingham lawyers and an Alabama coal company executive on charges of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
The indictment charges that the three paid former state Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham, who has already pleaded guilty, to take official action favorable to their interests in connection with preventing the expansion and prioritization of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in North Birmingham.
U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr., and Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation, Acting Special Agent in Charge James E. Dorsey announced the indictments in a press conference on Thursday attended by The Alabama Political Reporter and other media.
Specifically, a six-count indictment alleges that Joel Iverson Gilbert and Steven George McKinney, both partners in the Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham, conspired with David Lynn Roberson, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Drummond Company, to provide Robinson with a valuable and confidential consulting contract in exchange for his taking official action favorable to Balch & Bingham and its client, Drummond, regarding an environmental cleanup site in north Birmingham that could have cost Drummond tens of millions of dollars.
“It matters not on which side of the bribe one falls in public corruption,” Town said. “Those who pay and those who receive will be prosecuted to the fullest. The work done by this trial team and investigators with the FBI and IRS has been as diligent as it has been exceptional.”
“Public corruption tears at the fabric of democracy and undermines the public’s trust in government,” Sharp said. “Those who choose to engage in corrupt practices can expect the FBI and our partners will be working to bring you to justice.”
“The allegations against these defendants show personal gain and agendas were placed above the overall health of the citizens who lived and worked in this community,” Dorsey said. “Bribery of political officials is against the law and IRS Criminal Investigation will continue to assist with the ongoing effort to expose everyone involved in this conspiracy.”
This all began when the EPA designated an area of north Birmingham, including the neighborhoods of Harriman Park, Fairmont and Collegeville, as a Superfund site after finding elevated levels of toxins during soil sampling.
Town told reporters that these chemicals are commonly associated with coal.
In September 2013, the EPA notified five companies, including ABC Coke, a division of Drummond Coal, that they could potentially be responsible for the pollution. A company determined to be responsible “could have faced tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and fines,” according to the indictment.
In September 2014, EPA proposed adding the 35th Avenue 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, which could equal millions of dollars, according the charges. EPA also was considering the petition of a Birmingham advocacy group, GASP, to expand the site to the Tarrant and Inglenook neighborhoods.
Town said that if the 35th Avenue Site had been placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List it would have meant that the federal government would just clean up the site and then come after the polluters, including ABC Coke/Drummond, after the fact without any input or negotiation with the polluters. Drummond would not be able to negotiate a cap on their exposure. The U.S. government could clean up the site and then come after the alleged polluters after the cleanup. There is no way to limit their exposure. Expansion of the site would have increased Drummond’s eventual exposure to this even more.
The EPA contacted the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to notify the state of EPA’s proposal for the site. Then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley put ADEM on points for the superfund site.
Drummond decided to mitigate their exposure here by fighting the process. The company hired Balch & Bingham to help them come up with a plan. Roberson, Gilbert, and McKinney began crafting a plan.
Town said that the goals of the defendants were to: prevent the site from going on the national priorities list; prevent the proposed expansion to Inglenook and Tarrant; and defeat the EPA’s actions in the state all together.
To make their plan work, they needed a point man. Robinson was perfect because he represented the area in the House, he was vice chairman of the Jefferson County Legislative delegation, and he was willing to do it. Robinson took $14,000 down and $7000 a month.
The three were charged with conspiracy, bribery, three counts of honest services wire fraud, and one count of money laundering conspiracy.
The bribery count charges that the men agreed to give the lucrative contract and monthly payments to the Oliver Robinson Foundation to influence and reward Robinson for, among other things, using his official position to: Publicly pressure and advise the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s director to take a position for the state that was favorable to Balch & Bingham and Drummond in relation to EPA’s efforts to place the 35th Avenue Site on the NPL and expand it into Tarrant and Inglenook; Meet with and advise EPA officials to take a position favorable to Balch & Bingham and Drummond regarding the site listing and expansion; and vote as a member of the Alabama House Rules Committee to send a joint resolution, written by Gilbert, to the House floor for consideration with a recommendation for adoption. The resolution urged the state attorney general and ADEM to “combat the EPA’s overreach.” Robinson voted for the Gilbert resolution.
According to the indictment, Gilbert, McKinney and Roberson formed a tax-exempt corporation named Alliance for Jobs and Economy and recruited corporations to contribute money to it to help fund opposition to EPA’s actions in north Birmingham. Roberson opened and controlled AJE’s bank account. During 2015 and 2016, Drummond and four other corporations contributed a total of $195,000 to AJE, according to the indictment, and Gilbert and Roberson directed almost all of that money to the Oliver Robinson Foundation. Gilbert and Roberson also directed more than $150,000 from Drummond to the Oliver Robinson Foundation. In total, the Oliver Robinson Foundation received approximately $360,000 under the contract during 2015 and 2016.
As part of the conspiracy, payments from Drummond and AJE to the Oliver Robinson Foundation were routed through Balch & Bingham. According to the charges, the Oliver Robinson Foundation invoiced Balch & Bingham; Balch & Bingham paid the invoices; Balch & Bingham invoiced Drummond or AJE in an identical amount; and Drummond or AJE promptly paid those amounts to Balch & Bingham.
Town said that the accounting department at Balch was misled by McKinney and Gilbert as to what the money was for.
Town dismissed suggestions of a much wider conspiracy. He said that, “Those contacts at Drummond and Balch were in my opinion duped by the conspirators.” The conspirators, “Did not share all of the details with the principals at Balch and at Drummond.”
Town said that one of the terms of the contract was that Oliver Robinson could never divulge the existence of the contract.
Town said that Oliver Robinson never disclosed his conflict of interest while dealing with the EPA, ADEM, or the legislature, “Never once did he say that he was representing the interest of a law firm and a coal company.”
Robinson, 57, of Birmingham, pled guilty on Sept. 7 to conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud for accepting a valuable contract between Balch & Bingham and his non-profit Oliver Robinson Foundation to influence and reward him for using his elected position to oppose prioritization and expansion of the EPA site, designated the 35th Avenue Superfund Site. At the time, between November 2014 and November 2016, Robinson represented Alabama House District 58.
Town would not disclose how the federal government became aware of all of this or when. Town said government investigators were, “Very deliberate in our investigation.” Town said that the government wanted to protect their methods.
Town said that what the conspirators did “Was buying a public official.” They made the decision, “That is is cheaper to pay for a politician than to paying for an environmental cleanup.”
Town said that the lawyers crafted all of Robinson’s talking points and coached him in his dealing with EPA, ADEM, and the legislature. “McKinney and Gilbert were the brains behind every official action taken by Robinson.” “This is the worst type of public corruption. For the greed of a few and at the expense of families and children potentially exposed to pollutants.”
Town said, “You don’t get to buy politicians.”
A reporter asked Town about Gilbert’s Attorney’s, Jack Sharman, claim that Gilbert was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Town said that was part of the adversarial process. “There was nothing he said that I did not expect him to say.”
Town said of Robinson, “He has been a helpful witness.”
Town said there have been, “No discussion about plea deals,” with the defendants.
APR asked how the government reached the conclusion that others at Drummond and Balch were not involved in this?
Town said, “They were not given the full details and that was remarkably clear in the evidence.” Town said that Robinson was the “Only public official” involved. At Drummond, “Roberson appears to be the only one exposed at that point.”
Town expected that the alleged conspirator will be arraigned in the next two weeks.
Town said that the government had, “A remarkable amount of evidence” in this case and would be surprised if we get this case to trial this year as it will take defense counsel time to digest it all, “But we are ready to go.”
ABC 33/40’s Lauren Walsh asked about how the money could flow through Balch and everyone there be unaware. Town said, “I don’t believe that the folks writing checks to the Oliver Robinson agreement knew,” what it was for.
APR asked since Gilbert and McKinney were acting on behalf of Balch & Bingham and Roberson was acting on behalf of Drummond as a whole why the government did not go after the whole entities with civil action?
Town said, “We are not going to ever count those options out, but at this time we are going to focus on the criminal prosecutions.’
Regarding the exposure of possible other bad actors, Town said, “If more evidence comes up, that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, we will charge them.”
The maximum penalty for conspiracy is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for bribery is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for honest services wire fraud is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and the maximum penalty for money laundering conspiracy is 20 years in prison and a fine of the greater of $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction.
The FBI and IRS investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys George Martin, Robin Beardsley Mark and John B. Ward are prosecuting.
An indictment contains only charges. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty and the defense teams have not yet had a chance to present their defense.