By Glynn Wilson –
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two Birmingham lawyers and an Alabama coal company executive were indicted by a federal grand jury on Wednesday on charges of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and money laundering for paying a state legislator to fight the cleanup of a Superfund site in north Birmingham.
U.S. attorneys, IRS and FBI agents announced the six-count indictment of Steven George McKinney and Joel Iverson Gilbert, partners in the Birmingham law firm Balch and Bingham, and David Lynn Roberson, vice-president of government and regulatory affairs for Drummond Company, accusing them of conspiring to provide former state Rep. Oliver L. Robinson Jr. with a confidential, valuable consulting contract in exchange for official action favorable to the coal company and its law firm.
“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,” IRS agent James E. 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.”
The Environmental Protection Agency 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 ABC Coke, a division of Drummond, 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.
“Public corruption tears at the fabric of democracy and undermines the public’s trust in government,” FBI Special Agent Johnnie Sharp Jr. said. “Those who choose to engage in corrupt practices can expect the FBI and our partners will be working to bring you to justice.”
Robinson, 57, of Birmingham, pled guilty on Sept. 7 to conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud for accepting a valuable contract between Balch and 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, which included Birmingham, and was vice-chairman of the Jefferson County Legislative Delegation.
“It matters not on which side of the bribe one falls in public corruption,” U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town said in a statement announcing the indictment. “Those who pay and those who receive will be prosecuted to the fullest” extend of the law.
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 to expand the site to the Tarrant and Inglenook neighborhoods.
Gilbert, 45, McKinney, 62, and Roberson, 66, all of Birmingham, employed a strategy between 2014 and 2016 “focused on protecting ABC Coke and Drummond Company from the tremendous potential costs associated with being held responsible for pollution within the affected areas,” according to the indictment. They sought to accomplish that goal by working to prevent placement of the 35th Avenue Site on the National Priorities List or its expansion to Tarrant and Inglenook.
In addition to the conspiracy count, the indictment charges Gilbert, McKinney, and Roberson with one count of bribery, three counts of honest services wire fraud, and one count of money laundering.
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 favorable to Drummond and Balch and Bingham. Robinson also met with and advised EPA officials to take a position favorable to Drummond and Balch and Bingham and regarding the site listing and expansion. He voted as a member of the Alabama House Rules Committee to send a joint resolution, written by Gilbert, to the House floor for consideration urging the state attorney general and ADEM to “combat the EPA’s overreach.”
The honest services wire fraud counts charge Gilbert, McKinney, and Roberson with scheming to defraud Alabama citizens of their intangible right to Robinson’s honest services through bribery. These three counts charge three specific executions of the wire fraud scheme: Balch and Bingham checks for $14,000 on Feb. 17, 2015, $7,000 on April 10, 2015, and $7,000 on June 25, 2015. Each were deposited into the Robinson Foundation account at Regions Bank.
The money laundering conspiracy charges the three men with conspiring with each other and Robinson to engage in financial transactions designed to conceal the source and receipt of bribery payments.
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. Roberson opened and controlled AJE’s bank account. During 2015 and 2016, Drummond and four other corporations contributed a total of $195,000 to the non-profit, 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. The foundation received about $360,000 under the contract in 2015 and 2016.
As part of the conspiracy, payments from Drummond and AJE to the Oliver Robinson Foundation were routed through Balch and Bingham. According to the charges, the Oliver Robinson Foundation invoiced Balch and Bingham, then the law firm paid the invoices and invoiced Drummond or AJE in an identical amount. Drummond or AJE promptly paid those amounts to the law firm.
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.
© 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.