An Alabama scandal with a lot of bounce

By Tom Baxter

Next door in scandalacious Alabama, they’ve moved on from the philandering former governor and the former House speaker, currently out on bond. Lately the big question has been, who are “Attorney No. 1” and “Employee No. 1?”

These generic co-conspirators were revealed in an announcement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham (a busy shop) that former state Rep. Oliver Robinson has entered into a plea agreement on a varied assortment of bribery, fraud and tax evasion charges.

A former University of Alabama-Birmingham basketball star, Robinson is charged with accepted $360,000 through his charity to convince his constituents not to let the Environmental Protection Agency test for toxic substances in their north Birmingham neighborhoods. Robinson’s daughter also participated in an email and yard-sign campaign designed to convince residents of the area that the testing would drive down their property values.

Robinson did this in an agreement with “Attorney No. 1,” a partner in the powerful Birmingham firm of Balch & Bingham, and “Employee No. 1,” an executive of one of the firm’s biggest clients, the Drummond Company. This coal giant owns ABC Coke, a smaller company which might have been forced to foot the bill for an environmental cleanup in Robinson’s district, if he had not been successful in keeping the EPA out.

It might be helpful to pull back the focus a little at this point, to explain why, other than passing outrage, this should matter to a reader in Atlanta.

If you look at some of the maps of Georgia produced in the decades after the American Revolution, you’ll notice that it encompassed much of what would become the primary service area of the Southern Company, through its subsidiaries Georgia Power, Alabama Power, Mississippi Power and Gulf Power.

If you think of it that way, the past month has been very turbulent across the entirety of the old state. The Southern Company has suspended its “clean coal” project in Kemper County, Mississippi, with a warning that it may write down losses of $3.4 billion. Georgia Power and Southern’s nuclear subsidiary have taken over the Plant Vogtle nuclear power project in the wake of the Westinghouse bankruptcy. It will be relying on a $300 million payment from Westinghouse owner Toshiba which, we hear, required some jawboning between Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese officials to bring off.

The latest scandal in Birmingham isn’t on Southern’s plate, but it’s just a little too… close. Balch & Bingham’s biggest client is Alabama Power. For years, the Birmingham firm has played the role of an aggressive interloper, gaining ground in the competition for Southern Company business against the more established Atlanta firm of Troutman Sanders. If for no other reason, that should pique some interest in a scandal involving a Balch & Bingham partner.

There are lots and lots more connections. The acting assistant U.S. attorney general chargted with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws is Jeffery Wood, a former Balch & Bingham lobbyist. Among a number of cases from which Wood was recused is the Superfund case involving Robinson’s district.

There’s also Wood’s boss, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions. Over a 16-year period in the U.S. Senate, his top three contributors were the Southern Company, Balch & Bingham, and the Drummond Company.

The closeness of these connections isn’t surprising. The term “big mules” has long been used in Alabama to describe the powerful Birmingham industrialists who shared political power with the rural elites. The principals orbiting around this current scandal are simply the big mules of a post-mule era.

Last Friday the news site AL.com named Drummond Co. lobbyist David Roberson and Balch & Bingham partner Joel Gilbert, also a lobbyist, as the only two people who fit all the details in the federal complaint. Neither has been charged.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Robinson is cooperating in an ongoing investigation. Another legislator has reportedly told federal investigators that U.S. Sen. Luther Strange was present when he was offered a bribe to sabotage the EPA cleanup. Strange, in a campaign fight to hold on to his appointed position, called the report “fake news.”

Just to round out the list of prosecutorial options, the plea announcement said Robinson secretly taped meetings with EPA officials and a local environmental group, at the request of Attorney No. 1.

All this, and a new Trump administration appointee waiting for confirmation as the U.S. attorney in charge of this investigation. This is a story which could bounce in a lot of interesting directions.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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