A six-count indictment filed by a federal grand jury Wednesday charges two partners in a Birmingham law firm and a vice president of one of the world’s largest coal companies with conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and money laundering.
Investigators in a press conference Thursday alleged that the scheme, involving the bribery of a former state legislator from Birmingham, was designed to thwart EPA action on a toxic waste cleanup in the city of Tarrant and the adjacent Inglenook neighborhood of Birmingham.
Joel Iverson Gilbert and Steven McKinney, both partners in the Birmingham law firm of Balch and Bingham, and David Roberson, vice president of government and regulatory affairs of Birmingham-based Drummond Company, are accused of paying bribes through a non-profit foundation to former Rep. Oliver Robinson Jr., also a former UAB and NBA basketball player.
U.S. Attorney Jay Town announced the indictments in a news conference Thursday.
Robinson was indicted last month, accused of taking bribes from the two attorneys in exchange for his help to keep the federal Environmental Protection Agency from putting the 35th Avenue Superfund site on a national priority list. The idea was to have the matter handled by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, instead, which potentially would save Drummond “tens of millions of dollars,” Town said.
If the site is put on the priority list, which still could happen no matter the outcome of this case, the EPA could come in and clean up the site on its own without Drummond, and then seek reimbursement and/or damages against the company afterward.
The EPA says that the site is contaminated with arsenic, lead and other hazardous chemicals related to the processing of coal. Drummond, through its ABC Coke unit, continues to produce foundry coke at a facility in Tarrant.
Town said that Robinson used his position as a member of the House Rules Committee to push a joint resolution that would ask the state attorney general to “combat the EPA’s overreach.”
Drummond hired Balch and Bingham to represent its interests in the 35th Avenue Site, and McKinney and Gilbert handled the case.
In July 2014, the advocacy group Gasp petitioned the EPA to add the neighborhoods in Tarrant and Inglenook to the existing site. The EPA granted the request and began working with ADEM to address remediation efforts.
When the EPA considered adding the site to the priority list in September 2014, Gilbert and McKinney began looking for a way to get someone to work for Drummond on the inside.
“There were three essential goals … to this conspiracy,” Town said. “First, to prevent the Superfund site (from) getting on the National Priorities List. Second was to prevent the Superfund site from expanding into additional neighborhoods. And the third was to defeat the EPA’s efforts in the state altogether through official state channels.
“They needed a guy. And that guy was Oliver Robinson,” Town said. “They needed someone that was known in the area, understood that constituency from the north Birmingham neighborhoods that were subject to the Superfund site, and most importantly they needed someone that was willing to accept a bribe. Oliver Robinson was that man. Oliver Robinson was that public official. And Oliver Robinson was that co-conspirator.”
Town alleges that the attorneys and Roberson set up a nonprofit foundation for Robinson, to which they would funnel payments that were, in essence, bribes for Robinson’s influence in Montgomery. The money came from another tax-exempt corporate foundation called the Alliance for Jobs and Economy, controlled by Roberson. Four corporations donated $195,000 to the alliance, which then paid more than $150,000 to the Oliver Robinson Foundation.
In all, Robinson’s foundation was paid approximately $360,000 for a contract to represent Drummond’s interests and to persuade residents of the affected neighborhoods to oppose adding them to the Superfund site. The indictment states that those payments went from the AJE and Drummond through Balch, after Robinson sent them an invoice. The law firm then invoiced the AJE or Drummond for the same amount.
Town said that, as of now, these four men are the only ones known to be involved in the conspiracy and bribery, and that Gilbert and McKinney’s bosses at Balch were not aware of wrongdoings. “They were duped,” Town said. “They were not given the full picture.”
Town said his staff doesn’t have anyone else under investigation in the case. “But we’re going to continue to review the evidence as it comes in to us,” he added.
Robinson’s indictment, announced last month, was part of a plea deal in which he provided investigators information about the other three men in exchange for a likely reduced sentence and/or fine. He also agreed to no longer seek public office.
The FBI and the IRS were also involved in the investigation.
Gilbert, McKinney and Roberson are expected to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in about two weeks. Further court action probably will not come until the new year, Town said.
The trio could face a maximum of five years in prison on the conspiracy count, 10 years on the bribery count, 20 years each on three counts of honest services wire fraud and 20 years for money laundering conspiracy. The honest services wire fraud counts involve allegations of three payments made by wire transfer totaling $28,000 from Balch to Robinson’s foundation.
The first five counts also carry maximum fines of $250,000 each, and the money laundering maximum fine is either $500,000 or double the amount laundered, whichever is greater.
“A Case That Never Should Have Been Brought”
Even before the indictments were announced, an attorney for Gilbert announced that his client was innocent.
“Joel Gilbert is innocent of these charges. 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,” Bill Sharman of the law firm Lightfoot Franklin and White said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday.