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Key Witnesses Take the Stand in Week Two of Federal Bribery Trial of Balch Lawyers and Coal VP

 

 

By Ivana Hrynkiw 


July 7, 2018 - Week two in the federal bribery trial of two lawyers and a coal company executive saw the prosecution's key witness - a former Alabama state legislator who they allegedly bribed - take the stand.


Witnesses included former Alabama state Rep. Oliver Robinson; the CEO of Drummond Company; the southeast regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency; and the state's current Alabama Department of Environmental Management director.

 

Oliver Robinson

 

They all took the stand in the trial for Drummond Vice President of Government Relations David Roberson, and Balch & Bingham lawyers Joel Gilbert and Steven McKinney. The three men are accused of bribing Robinson to oppose prioritizing the cleanup of a north Birmingham area turned EPA Superfund site, and to oppose expanding the area.

 

David Roberson


In the first week, Assistant U.S. attorneys from the Northern District of Alabama asked Balch executives about the consulting contract between the firm and the Oliver Robinson Foundation, and emails between the three men.


Drummond CEO Mike Tracy said Monday that Roberson- a registered lobbyist- was tasked with monitoring the state legislature and keeping up relationships with government officials. He said in 2013, the company received a letter from the EPA designating Drummond as a potentially responsible party for the cost of the Superfund site cleanup. Of the 1,100 residences sampled by the EPA, approximately 400 showed elevated levels of toxic chemicals.


Tracy said the company hired Balch to tackle the matter, and Roberson agreed with Gilbert that Drummond needed to be in the north Birmingham community and work with its residents to "get our side of the story out."


President and CEO of American Cast Iron Pipe Company Van Richey also testified. He joined the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy in 2015, after seeing a presentation Gilbert made at the Balch office. Richey said he was told the AJE was formed to educate business leaders in the Tarrant area about the "government overreach" in the community, to hire scientists for research, and to pay for legal help. His company paid approximately $60,000 to the organization.


Tuesday, Robinson took the stand. He talked about his life, growing up in Gate City and playing basketball at UAB before being drafted to the San Antonio Spurs. After an injury left him unable to play professionally, he came back to Birmingham. Robinson was elected to the state House in 1998.


Robinson said Roberson approached him and asked for help with Drummond's Superfund issue. They spoke in 2014, and again later that year at a business council meeting. Roberson asked the then-legislator to meet at the Balch office, and Robinson agreed.


In that meeting with Gilbert, Robinson said, the two men asked him who he knew that could run against a city councilor that sided with the EPA. They also asked him about any of his contacts who could possibly help oppose the EPA. "In essence, they wanted me to use my influence as a legislator," Robinson said.


In December 2014, Robinson agreed on a consulting contract with Gilbert. The money, paid directly by Balch, would be sent to Robinson's nonprofit organization the Oliver Robinson Foundation.


Robinson also talked about various meetings he had where he used talking points, sent by Gilbert and copied to Roberson, and also secretly recorded the meetings.


Wednesday, the Hugo Black federal courthouse was closed for Independence Day. Testimony resumed Thursday with Gilbert, Roberson, and McKinney's defense teams cross examining Robinson about his plea agreement-- where he's agreed to plead guilty to seven charges-- and his intentions with his various ventures. 


When the lawyers were finished questioning Robinson, EPA Region Four Administrator and former Alabama Department of Environmental Management Director Trey Glenn took the stand.


Glenn-- who led ADEM from 2005-2009 and was recently named to the EPA position-- said that in 2013 when the EPA told Drummond the company may be responsible for cleanup costs, Glenn reached out to Roberson and said his company Southeast Engineering and Consulting could help.


Glenn emailed Gilbert and Roberson a draft proposal focusing on environmental justice, community outreach, and technical and scientific support. Glenn was given the contract.


He and his partner in the company, then-AMEC member Scott Phillips, talked about how Phillips must follow ethical laws and the "appropriate process." Glenn became the primary ADEM liaison, and said he told the ADEM director that he was consulting with Balch and Drummond whenever they spoke. "To me, that was important," Glenn said.


Balch was billed for the work SEC did, and said payments were received from Drummond. 


Glenn continued on the stand under cross examination on Friday before Lance LeFleu, the current ADEM director, took the stand. His testimony ended the day.


According to testimony and documents Balch wrote letters that officials just signed off on, including Gov. Robert Bentley. 


LeFleur said it's not uncommon for lobbyists or consultants to draft letters for him to sign. He said he didn't see anything wrong with it.

 

The trial continues Monday with another witness. 

 

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