By Nick Patterson
The Birmingham Times
U.S. Attorney Jay Town Thursday announced federal indictments against two attorneys and an executive of the Drummond Company for allegedly conspiring to bribe former state representative Oliver Robinson.
The case, in which Robinson has already pleaded guilty, involves allegations of improperly attempting to shield Drummond from massive payouts in cleaning up polluted areas of north Birmingham. If convicted the indicted men could be looking at massive fines of their own, and years in prison.
The six-count indictment was handed down by a grand jury on Wednesday against Joel Iverson Gilbert, and Steven George McKinney, both partners in the Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham, and David Lynn Roberson, vice-president of government and regulatory affairs for Drummond Company.
The indictment alleging conspiracy, bribery and money laundering accuses Gilbert,45, McKinney, 62, and Roberson, 66, of a conspiracy to bribe then-House District 58 Rep. Robinson to take “official action” favorable to their position against EPA actions in north Birmingham.
Balch & Bingham’s lawyers represent Drummond, whose ABC Coke division is one of five companies the EPA said in Sept. 2013 were potentially responsible for pollution in a designated area of north Birmingham including the neighborhoods of Harriman Park, Fairmont and Collegeville. The area is now a Superfund site after the EPA found elevated levels of arsenic, lead and benzo(a)pyrene during soil sampling. Any company determined to be responsible “could have faced tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and fines,” according to the indictment.
Robinson, 57, pleaded guilty on Sept. 7 to conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud for accepting a valuable contract between Balch & Bingham and his nonprofit 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,” according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In September 2014, EPA proposed adding the 35th Avenue Site to its National Priorities List (NPL) — which would have let EPA 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 — and was also considering a petition to add Tarrant and Birmingham’s Inglenook neighborhood to the site, as requested by advocacy organization GASP.
According to federal officials, the alleged conspirators wanted to prevent north Birmingham from being placed on the NPL, prevent the expansion to Tarrant and Inglenook, and protect Drummond from the “tremendous potential costs” associated with the cleanup of the areas involved.
What they did, according to the indictment is set up “a tax-exempt corporation named Alliance for Jobs and Economy and recruit… corporations to contribute money to it to help fund opposition to EPA’s actions in north Birmingham.” Alliance for Jobs and Economy (AJE) then collected $195,000 from Drummond and four other corporations, then funneled nearly all of that money in monthly payments to The Oliver Robinson Foundation. Drummond alone gave the Robinson Foundation another $150,000, bringing the total to about $360,000 between 2015 and 2016.
“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,” a federal press release stated.
The purpose of the payments, federal officials allege, was to get Robinson to use his official position to:
- pressure the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the Alabama Environmental Management Commission to take a position against the EPA’s ongoing efforts and favorable to Drummond;
- meet with the EPA in an effort to get the federal agency to take a position favorable to Drummond;
- vote as a member of the Alabama House Rules Committee to send a joint resolution (which had been written by Gilbert) to the House with a recommendation urging the state attorney general and ADEM to “combat the EPA’s overreach.”
According to the press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Gilbert, McKinney and Roberson could face stiff penalties if they are eventually found guilty. “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.”
Jack Sharman of the law firm of Lightfoot, Franklin &White LLC, representing Gilbert, issued a statement proclaiming his innocence and that he was just doing his job legally.