Former state Rep. Oliver L. Robinson pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bribes from a Birmingham lawyer and an Alabama coal company executive in exchange for advocating against an environmental cleanup in north Birmingham.
The 57-year-old Democrat from Birmingham entered his guilty pleas before U.S. District Court Judge Abdul K. Kallon to conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud and tax evasion. Robinson’s plea agreement required that he cooperate in further investigations in exchange for prosecutors’ recommending a lighter sentence.
Otherwise, the maximum penalty for conspiracy is five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine, according to a news release. The maximum penalty for bribery is 10 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for each count of wire fraud is 20 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for tax evasion is five years imprisonment and a $100,000 fine, together with the costs of prosecution.
Robinson, who represented Alabama’s House District 58 from 1998 until he resigned Nov. 30, 2016, also as part of his plea agreed never again to seek elected office and to pay restitution and forfeiture in amounts to be determined. His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 7. Robinson is free on bond.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Robinson in June for accepting a contract between Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham and the Oliver Robinson Foundation to use his influence to oppose the EPA’s prioritization and expansion of a north Birmingham Superfund site.
“This lamentable pursuit of self-interest masquerading as beneficial for the little guy is more than a violation of our laws,” U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town said in a press release. “This was a violation of the public trust and among the worst breaches of our social contract. All those engaged in public corruption must be brought to justice, and it matters not their benefactor or station.”
Outside of the bribery charges, Robinson also pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud for spending $17,783 of campaign contributions on personal items unrelated to his legislative campaigns. He pleaded guilty to a third wire fraud count for soliciting money from corporations, representing that he would use it to publish a magazine or to defray costs for an annual Partnering for Progress Business Conference or the annual Alabama Black Achievers Awards Gala, which the Oliver Robinson Foundation sponsored. Robinson spent at least $250,000 of those contributions on personal items unrelated to the magazine or the annual events, prosecutors said in their press release.
Robinson also pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion for 2015.
Foundations of the Case
According to Robinson’s plea, which detailed events leading up to the charges, 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 arsenic, lead and benzo(a)pyrene in the soil.
In September 2013, EPA notified five companies, including ABC Coke, a division of Drummond Company, that they could be responsible for the pollution. A company determined to be responsible for pollution within the site, known as the 35th Avenue Superfund Site, potentially faced multimillion-dollar clean-up costs and fines.
In July 2014, EPA began considering the petition of a Birmingham environmental advocacy group, Gasp, to expand the Superfund site to the Tarrant and Inglenook neighborhoods. EPA granted that petition in October 2014 and contracted with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to perform the preliminary assessment.
In September 2014, EPA proposed adding the Superfund site to its national priorities list, signaling that it required priority attention. Placement on the priorities list would allow EPA to use the federal Superfund Trust Fund to conduct long-term cleanup at the site, provided the state picked up 10 percent of the costs, which could equal millions of dollars.
Balch & Bingham represented Drummond and ABC Coke’s interests in the 35th Avenue site proposal. A partner at Balch & Bingham, identified in the charges as “Attorney #1,” and a Drummond Company executive, identified as “Drummond Employee #1,” formed the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy as a tax-exempt corporation in 2015 to raise money to help fund their opposition to the EPA actions, according to the charges.
ABC Coke and Drummond were facing the possibility of “tremendous potential costs” if they were held responsible for the pollution.
The plan included advising north Birmingham residents and public officials to oppose EPA’s actions.
Balch & Bingham paid Robinson’s foundation $360,000 in 2015 and 2016, according to the release.
Robinson appeared before the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and the director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management in February 2015 and told them he was “really here today to try to protect the residents of north Birmingham.”
Robinson told them that, if the areas of north Birmingham were designated as a Superfund site or listed on the NPL, the residents would be “considered to live in a dump and nothing can happen there until it’s either cleaned up and after that, it will take tremendous investment to get it to move forward.”
He did not tell them that Balch & Bingham and Drummond had contracted with his foundation to represent their interests.
The FBI and IRS investigated the case, which Assistant U.S. Attorneys George Martin, Robin Beardsley Mark and John B. Ward are prosecuting.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp Jr. said in the news release that the FBI has a “zero tolerance” stance on public corruption.
“Public corruption is among the most serious of criminal violations and a betrayal of the public’s sacred trust,” he said. “If allowed to spread unchecked, it can threaten the foundation of our government. The FBI continues to aggressively pursue those who participate in this type of crime.”
Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation, Acting Special Agent in Charge James E. Dorsey said every attempt to undermine the tax system undermines the enforcement of the tax administration.
“Engaging in public corruption does not qualify as a tax exemption,” he said. “The totalities of (Robinson’s) actions are egregious, devastating, and disappointing to the community in which he promised to serve.”