August 6, 2017

Jeff Sessions and the Alabama Watergate

Project on Giovernment Oversight - Whether or not Attorney General Jeff Sessions survives in office, it won’t silence the hubbub in his home state of Alabama over a major bribery scandal that highlights Sessions’ conflicts of interest and could lead law enforcement to examine the role of his hand-picked successor, Senator Luther Strange, in the controversy.

The mess, which some commentators have started calling “Alabama’s Watergate,” stems from the recent admission by a state lawmaker, Oliver Robinson, that he accepted $360,000 in bribes. According to a Justice Department press release, the payments came both from an executive at Drummond Coal, one of the state’s largest companies, and an attorney at Balch & Bingham, its powerful law firm based in Birmingham. The press release says the bribes were part of a scheme to block expansion of a local Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site full of arsenic, lead, and carcinogenic hydrocarbons that threatened to cost the coal company tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

“This case gets at the heart of public corruption in Alabama,” Robert Posey, the Acting US Attorney in Birmingham, said in June when accepting the state lawmaker’s admission of wrongdoing. “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.”

Lawyers for Robinson, the bribe-taking lawmaker, say he is cooperating with authorities. And in a state rife with corruption—the governor, the head of the legislature, and the state’s chief judge have all been removed from office in the last year—law enforcement continues to investigate the bribery scandal.

The case is not widely known in Washington, though it has become the talk of Alabama. Luther Strange, who is a frontrunner for an August 15 Republican primary to retain his Senate seat, has seen that primary morph into a proxy battle between the GOP establishment, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and insurgent forces including informal Trump advisor Roger Stone. Strange’s primary opponents have evoked the corruption case to attack him. And for the White House, the investigation may provide further evidence that Sessions is “beleaguered“—as President Trump recently put it when criticizing his Attorney General for recusing himself in the Russia probe—because of a conflict of interest in that investigation. Campaign Contributions and Official Acts

Sessions has so far said nothing publicly about the matter.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

In a possible link to the case, a Balch newsletter from December 2015 reports that its lobbyists met with then-Senator Sessions to discuss an emissions issue linked to the Birmingham Superfund site. Sessions has long been critical of the EPA, restrictions on carbon emissions, and other measures opposed by the coal industry. Sessions has also received around $300,000 from Drummond and Balch political action committees as well as from their employees since the late 1990s. Consistently, Drummond and Balch rank among the second and third largest sources of campaign contributions to Sessions.

For Sessions personally, ties to the Balch law firm run deep as, over the years, he has installed various Balch attorneys in key positions on his Senate and Justice Department staffs. One former staffer, who currently practices environmental law as a Balch partner, was at Sessions’ side as an advisor during his confirmation hearings to be Attorney General in January.

Even before Sessions was approved by the Senate and took command at DOJ, he appointed another Balch partner to the sensitive position of Acting Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources at the Department. Among other duties, that division litigates on behalf of the EPA in Superfund cases, and other matters.

Prior to his DOJ appointment by Sessions, the Balch partner, Jeffrey Wood, was a registered lobbyist for another coal industry giant, but apparently not for Drummond. However, earlier this year, Wood recused himself from any matter at the Justice Department involving Balch and “specific matters involving other clients for whom he provided legal services in the last two years.” In a list of those “specific matters,” the Justice Department cited “matters related to the ... Birmingham [Superfund] site,” the polluted zone at the heart of the bribery scandal. Wood’s former Balch partner, environmental lawyer Joel Gilbert, has been identified in the Alabama press as one of two persons designated by the DOJ, though not by name, for having paid bribes related to that Superfund site. Gilbert has not been charged and did not respond to a request for comment.

“We are aware of the recent arraignment of [Alabama lawmaker] Oliver Robinson and the allegations included in the plea documents. We take these matters seriously, and are taking all appropriate steps to assess the situation,” said a spokeswoman for Balch in a written statement to the Project On Government Oversight. “We are cooperating fully with government authorities, and we are deeply committed to upholding the ethical standards of our profession and our firm.”

The Alabama press also identified another bribery suspect as a Drummond executive, David Roberson, who Federal Election Commission records list as a campaign contributor to Sessions. Neither Drummond nor Roberson responded to a request for comment. Roberson has not been charged.

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