National News

Alabama Coal Executive and Lawyer Are Convicted of Bribery Over Pollution Cleanup

Posted July 24, 2018 4:41 p.m. EDT
Updated July 24, 2018 4:44 p.m. EDT

A coal company executive and a lawyer have been convicted in federal court of bribing an Alabama lawmaker to oppose Environmental Protection Agency plans that could have made the company help pay to clean up a polluted Superfund site.

David L. Roberson, 67, a vice president at the Drummond Co. based in Birmingham, and Joel I. Gilbert, 46, a lawyer who worked for the coal company, were convicted late Friday by a jury in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, the Justice Department said Monday.

The men were found guilty of bribing a former state representative, Oliver L. Robinson Jr., to oppose plans by the EPA to place a polluted site in north Birmingham on a priority list, which could have made Drummond liable for tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and fines, the Justice Department said.

From 2015-2016, Robinson, whose district was next to the Superfund site, was paid $360,000 by Gilbert’s law firm through Robinson’s nonprofit organization, the Oliver Robinson Foundation, which was meant to fund literacy programs, the department said.

In 2015, Robinson appeared before state environmental officials to lobby them to “narrow the list” of companies that could be held responsible for the pollution, it said.

He also argued that property values of residents in the area could be harmed, and as a member of a legislative committee he backed a resolution opposing the EPA’s actions that was written by Gilbert, the statement and indictment said.

In addition to bribery, Roberson and Gilbert were found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy charges, the Justice Department said. They will be sentenced in October.

Robinson pleaded guilty in September 2017 to conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion, the department said. He resigned in 2016, according to the indictment. His sentencing will take place in September.

The Alabama case centers on the 35th Avenue Superfund Site, which sits in the north Birmingham neighborhoods Harriman Park, Fairmont and Collegeville. The EPA found elevated levels of arsenic, lead and a type of hydrocarbon called benzo[a]pyrene in soil samples there, the indictment said.

In 2014, the EPA proposed adding the site to its National Priorities List, a designation that means the agency can use Superfund program money to clean up the site, provided the state in which the site is located agrees and supplies about 10 percent of the costs.

Inclusion on the list does not automatically mean that the agency will pursue cleanup, or that liability will be assigned to a party or company. But it also allows the state and the federal government to try to recoup costs from companies deemed to be responsible for the pollution, the indictment says.

In 2014, the EPA notified Drummond, whose ABC Coke plant operates at the site, and four other companies that they could be responsible for cleaning costs if the site were added to the priorities list.

That year, the agency also started to consider a petition from a Birmingham-based environmental health advocacy group, Gasp, to expand the size of the site to include two other affected areas: the Inglenook neighborhood and Tarrant, a nearby city, the indictment said.

But Gilbert, who was with the law firm Balch & Bingham, and Drummond worked to prevent the priority listing of the site and the expansion of it, the indictment said. Their plan included paying Robinson and “advising residents of north Birmingham and public officials to oppose EPA’s actions,” it said.

It also said Gilbert wrote letters related to opposition of the listing of the site, which Robinson signed on his official stationery and presented to state officials to get them to oppose the EPA plan.

Gilbert also “wrote a joint resolution” urging the attorney general and state officials to “combat the EPA’s overreach” that Robinson, then a member of the Alabama House of Representatives’ Rules Committee, voted to send to the House after it was adopted by the Senate, the indictment said. The act was passed in 2015.

The listing of the 35th Avenue site never took place.

Drummond said in a statement Saturday that it was “disappointed” in the conviction. “While we respect the judicial process, we consider David to be a man of integrity who would not knowingly engage in wrongdoing,” it said.

“When an environmentalist group raised allegations regarding our operations in the Birmingham area, Drummond responded by hiring one of Alabama’s most well-respected environmental law firms,” the statement added. “As testimony in the trial showed, we were assured the firm’s community outreach efforts on our behalf were legal and proper.”

Stan Blanton, a managing partner with Balch & Bingham, said in a statement Tuesday that although the firm was not a party in the case, its associates and staff were “deeply disappointed in any conduct that does not adhere to our commitment to the rule of law and to the communities in which we are fortunate to live and work.” He said Gilbert was no longer with the firm.

U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town said the case was an example of public corruption.

“This case was not about the EPA,” he said in the department’s statement. “This case was not about pollution. This was a case about greed at the expense of too many.”

Michael Hansen, the executive director of Gasp, said Tuesday that the group would try again to have the 35th Avenue site reconsidered for the priorities list, and would also pursue the possibility that the campaign to block it included other public ethics or campaign contributions violations.

“We are going to see if we can re-petition the EPA,” he said. “We are also exploring legal action. There was a lot of other stuff going on that may have been state crimes.”