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Former legislator pleads guilty to taking bribes

Posted September 7

— A former Alabama legislator pleaded guilty Thursday to taking bribes from a coal company employee and lawyer to fight environmental cleanups in north Birmingham.

Former Rep. Oliver Robinson of Birmingham stood before a federal judge to enter pleas to charges of conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud and tax evasion.

Federal prosecutors said Robinson was given a contract with a law firm in exchange for using his legislative position to oppose the Environmental Protection Agency's prioritization and expansion of a north Birmingham Superfund site. Prosecutors said Robinson urged state officials and constituents in the high-poverty swath of Birmingham he represented to oppose Superfund designation, saying it would stigmatize the area, when the real goal was to protect the polluting company from cleanup costs.

"This was a violation of the public trust and among the worst breaches of our social contract," U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town said in a statement. "All those engaged in public corruption must be brought to justice, and it matters not their benefactor or station."

The EPA had designated the area a Superfund site because of elevated levels of arsenic, lead and other chemicals and in 2013 notified a division of Drummond Coal Co. that it was one of five companies potentially responsible for the pollution. In 2014, the EPA considered adding the site to the national priority list and expanding it into other neighborhoods.

Robinson took a contract with the Birmingham law firm of Balch & Bingham, which represented Drummond. According to the charges, a law firm employee and a Drummond employee agreed to pay Robinson to represent the firm and its clients' interests on "environmental issues in north Birmingham." Robinson was paid $360,000 under the contract during 2015 and 2016, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors have not named the coal company and law firm employees, and so far no one else has been charged.

Drummond officials did not immediately return a telephone call seeing comment. Balch & Bingham issued a statement saying the firm was "cooperating fully with government authorities."

"Balch & Bingham is deeply committed to upholding the ethical standards of our profession and our firm. Due to the ongoing investigation, we are unable to comment further at this time," the statement read.

Prosecutors announced the charges this summer and defense lawyers said Robinson intended to plead guilty and was "taking complete responsibility for his mistakes and misjudgments."

Robinson will be sentenced on Dec. 7.

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