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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.

“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.”

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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.

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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.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Health

Alabama’s hospitalized COVID-19 patients Sunday at highest number since Sept. 2.

It’s a trend that has public health officials and hospital staff concerned that the state may be headed for another surge.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama hospitals on Sunday were caring for 920 COVID-19 inpatients, the highest number of patients since Sept. 2 and a 23 percent increase from a month ago. 

It’s a trend that has public health officials and hospital staff concerned that the state may be headed for another  surge just as the regular flu season begins to fill up hospital beds. 

Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”

Alabama’s seven-day average of daily hospitalized COVID-19 patients was 864 on Sunday, the highest it’s been since Sept. 8. State hospitals saw a peak of COVID-19 inpatients on Aug. 6, when 1,613 patients were being cared for. 

The state added 1,079 new confirmed and probable cases on Sunday, and Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases hit 1,358 Sunday, the highest it’s been since Aug. 13. Two “data dumps” to the Alabama Department of Public Health of older confirmed cases Thursday and Friday elevated the daily counts on those days, but after weeks of daily cases hovering around 700 and 800, the state now regularly sees more than 1,000 cases a day. 

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The older test results skew the state’s percent positivity, but Alabama’s 14-day average of percent positivity on Sunday was 20 percent. Just prior to the addition of those older cases, the 14-day average was 15 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.

As cases continue to rise, the number of tests being performed statewide continue to decline, which is increasing Alabama’s percent positivity rate. The 14-day average of daily tests was 6,619 on Sunday — a 5 percent decrease from two weeks ago. 

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There have been 2,866 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths statewide. The state’s 14-day average of daily confirmed deaths was 14 on Sunday, up from 12 two weeks ago. 

The United States on Saturday recorded its second highest day of new cases since the start of the pandemic, with 83,718 new cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. Saturday’s peak was just 39 cases fewer than the country’s all-time daily high, set on Friday. As of Sunday, 225,061 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S.

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Elections

Trump Truck and boat parades this weekend

Brandon Moseley

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Trump boat parade

As Election Day draws near, Alabama Republicans are excited about promoting the re-election of Donald J. Trump as President and the election of Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate. This weekend two pro-President Trump events are happening in the state. There will be a truck parade from Ashland to Phenix City on Saturday sponsored by the Clay County Republican Party, while there will also be a boat parade on Wilson Lake in the Shoals sponsored by the Colbert County Republican Party on Sunday.

The pickup trucks will assemble at the Ashland Industrial Park in Clay County, 8240 Hwy 9, Ashland. There is a pre-departure rally at 10:00 a.m. central standard time. The trucks will depart at 11:00 a.m. and then proceed on a parade route that will take them into the bitterly contested swing state of Georgia. The Trump Pickup Parade will wind through east Alabama and West Georgia traveling through LaGrange and Columbus before concluding near the Alabama/Georgia line in Phenix City, 332 Woodland Drive, Phenix City at approximately 2:00 p.m. central time. Speakers will begin at 3:00. Trump flags will be on sale at the event.

The Phenix Motorsports Park will be hosting what sponsor hope could possibly the world’s largest Pickup Tuck parade in U.S. history that is routing over 50 mile through Georgia in effort to “pickup” President Trump’s numbers in GA.

A number dignitaries have been invited to address the Phenix City rally, including Coach Tuberville. Former State Sen. Shadrack McGill, Trump Victory Finance Committee member former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., and Paul Wellborn, the President and CEO of the largest Family owned Kitchen Cabinet manufacture in the USA are among the featured speakers who have committed to speak at the event.

Entertainment will be provided by: Charity Bowden, an up and coming country music singer who was the runner up on “The Voice”. Charity will sing ‘I am Proud to be an American’ as well as songs from her Voice performances. The McGill Girls will also perform. The three beautiful and talented sisters will be singing patriotic songs in three part harmony. Geoff Carlisle, a professional DJ will be keeping the crowd pumped with music and entertainment.

Following the speakers and the entertainment there will Trump truck-vs- Joe Bidden truck races down the drag strip for the finale.

The Northwest Alabama boat parade will be on Sunday. The boats will gather at 2:00 p.m. near Turtle Point and then the flotilla will parade around the open waters of Wilson Lake til 3_00 p.m.. There will be a contest for best decorated Trump boats.

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Trump supporters have held a number of large boat parades across the state to show their support for the re-election of Pres. Trump.

Boat parade sponsors say that this parade will be: pro-American, pro-law enforcement, pro-military.

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Health

COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise

Eddie Burkhalter

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COVID-19 Corona Influenza Virus Molecules Image Stock Photo

The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9. 

UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.

“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said. 

Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.

Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.

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Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.

The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.

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Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”

Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”

Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.

“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”

Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.

“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.

Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.

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News

Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology

Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

John H. Glenn

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.

Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”

The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.

Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.

“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”

Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.

“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.

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Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”

Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.

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The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”

Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.

“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”

District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.

“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”

District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” 
Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”

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