BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – A former Alabama legislator pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting bribes from powerful Birmingham law firm to advocate against expansion of a massive EPA Superfund site in the city.
Oliver Robinson, a Birmingham Democrat, resigned from the Alabama House last year, claiming that there was a conflict of interest with his serving in the legislature and his daughter working for then Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican.
On Thursday, Robinson pleaded guilty to federal charges of fraud, bribery, corruption, and tax evasion.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office and FBI investigators, Robinson accepted bribes from the Balch and Bingham law firm in Birmingham to exchange for his working against the Superfund site.
Balch & Bingham client, Drummond Coal and its affiliate ABC Coke, would have potentially had to pay millions to cleanup additional neighborhoods within the city, the authorities said.
In his plea agreement, former Robinson admitted that he was paid a total of $360,000 through his non-profit organization by an attorney representing a company that was potentially responsible for causing pollution in the neighborhoods.
The Oliver Robinson Foundation was established to raise funds to advance financial literacy among students at high schools and historically black colleges through publications and presentations.
According to court documents, the EPA indentified parts of north Birmingham as having elevated levels of arsenic, lead and benzo(a)pyrene through soil sampling and it designated the area as the 35th Avenue Superfund Site. The EPA further proposed adding the site to the National Priorities List that would give the area priority attention needed for clean up.
Following the discovery of the toxins, the EPA sent notice letters to five companies it felt could potentially be responsible for pollution in the area, including ABC Coke, a division of Drummond Company.
Drummond and ABC Coke were represented by local law firm Balch & Bingham and a lawyer named in court documents only as Attorney #1 was responsible for coordinating a response to the EPA’s actions. Attorney #1 was assisted by a Drummond employee, named in the documents as Employee #1. Both of these individuals were registered with the State of Alabama as lobbyists.
According to court documents, Attorney #1 and Employee #1 employed a strategy focused on protecting ABC Coke and Drummond from “the tremendous potential costs associated with being held responsible for pollution within the affected areas.”
The plan was three-fold and included advising residents of north Birmingham to oppose EPA’s actions and paying Oliver Robinson through his foundation to represent Balch & Bingham’s and its clients’ interests in the environmental matters.
Finally, Attorney #1 and Employee #1 formed a tax-exempt corporation named Alliance for Jobs and the Economy and they recruited corporations to contribute money that they used to fund opposition to the EPA’s actions. Drummond Company was one of the corporations that contributed and they used money from the Alliance to pay Robinson.
Robinson was an active participant despite his duty “to honestly, openly and fairly represent the State of Alabama and the citizens and residents of Birmingham.”
Robinson, according to court documents, used his position as a member of the Alabama House and vice-chairman of the Jefferson County Legislative Delegation to “pressure and advise public officials to oppose EPA’s actions in north Birmingham.”
When Robinson met with representatives from the EPA and GASP (the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution), he was given talking points by Attorney #1 and Employee #1 and he was instructed to secretly record the meetings. Robinson never told these organizations that he was in fact working to oppose their efforts.
In 2015, Robinson appeared before the Alabama Environmental Management Commission “to protect the residents of north Birmingham”, telling the AEMC that calls from constituents led him “as the vice chairman of the Jefferson County House delegation, to do some research on the Superfund delegations and the NPL listings and to look at the North Birmingham 35th Avenue area location with some fervor.”
Robinson continued that he had “yet to see any information that shows me that this area should be designated as a Superfund site, not to mention being put on the NPL listing” and he further stated, “the thing that gets me and what is in the process of hurting the residents in that area is that the EPA has included five other corporations in on this process, but there have been no reports stating that these individuals are culpable in any way. And where that hurts the residents is the fact that we will have decades of litigation that will occur because of these five companies being added.”
Robinson ended by saying that residents in the area are “considered to live in a dump and nothing will happen there until it’s either cleaned up and after that, it will take tremendous investments to get it to move forward.”
Court documents say that Attorney #1 wrote letters that Robinson printed on official Alabama House letterhead requesting further information from the ADEM and the attorney further wrote a joint resolution for consideration by the Alabama House and Senate urging the state attorney general combat the EPA’s purported overreach. Robinson voted in committee to send the resolution to the floor of the House for consideration and he communicated to residents in the affected area through an organization formed called Get Smart Tarrant.
Robinson was charged with and pled guilty to conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion. He was further charged with two counts of fraud related to spending campaign contributions on personal items and contributions he solicited through events he sponsored.
In a news release announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney Posey said, “This case gets at the heart of public corruption in Alabama. Well-funded special interests offer irresistible inducements to public officials. In exchange, the officials represent the interests of those who pay rather than the interests of those who vote. Here a public official betrayed his community to advocate for those who polluted their neighborhoods.”
Under the plea agreement, Robinson agreed to never again seek or hold public office and to pay restitution and forfeiture of more than $767,000.
Robinson’s attorneys, Richard and Michael Whisonant, Jr. of Jaffe, Hanle, Whisonant & Knight PC in Birmingham, issued a statement on behalf of their client which said, “Oliver is deeply aware that he has let down the public, his constituents and his family as it relates to certain decisions he made that he deeply regrets. Entering into a plea agreement with the government represents the clearest evidence that he is taking complete responsibility for his mistakes and misjudgments.
“Since the investigation unfolded, He has been, and intends to remain, faithful to the truth as he moves forward and puts the past behind him. He offers no excuses – just deep remorse – for his past actions,” the statement said.
The Balch & Bingham attorney and Drummond employee have not been charged, but Posey said Robinson is cooperating with the ongoing investigation.