Exposing Corruption and Preventing Abuse of Power

Luther Strange's Chief Fundraiser Tied to Ongoing Bribery Investigation, New Documents Show

POGO Renews Call for Jeff Sessions to Recuse Himself from Alabama Probe

(Photos via Wikimedia Commons, Shutterstock)

The lead fundraiser for Senator Luther Strange’s (R-AL) reelection campaign, Mike Thompson, appears to have been involved in a bribery scheme that is part of an ongoing federal public corruption investigation, according to previously unreported documents obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). The new information reinforces an earlier call by POGO to wall off this investigation from political interference.

Strange faces a tough primary runoff battle next Tuesday against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, and so President Trump is holding a rally for Strange on Friday in Alabama. The runoff has become a proxy battle between different factions in the Republican Party.

The previously unreported documents are filings with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from 2015 and 2016 by the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy, Inc., a tax-exempt organization, as well as a report it filed with the state of Delaware, where the nonprofit is incorporated.

In a filing in federal court in Alabama this year, the Justice Department alleged the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy was a critical component in a scheme where coal giant Drummond Co. bribed an Alabama state legislator, Oliver Robinson (D). Robinson resigned from the Alabama legislature last fall. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to taking bribes to oppose proposed actions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at a Superfund site in Birmingham that could result in coal giant Drummond Co. paying millions to clean up pollution. Robinson signed a secret contract with Drummond to do this.

“This case gets at the heart of public corruption in Alabama,” Acting U.S. Attorney Robert Posey, a career official, said in June.

According to the Justice Department: “It was a further part of the conspiracy that Balch & Bingham, Drummond Company, and the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy would and did pay the Oliver Robinson Foundation a total of approximately $360,000.00 under the contract during 2015 and 2016.” Balch and Bingham is an influential Alabama-based law firm that represents Drummond. “Drummond Company and several other corporations contributed money to the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy,” the Justice Department also noted, and "All of the money contributed to the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy” was used by a Drummond employee to “pay Balch & Bingham on the invoices related to the Oliver Robinson Foundation."

The Alliance for Jobs and the Economy’s IRS filing lists Mike Thompson as one of its two officers, along with David L. Roberson who is an executive with the Drummond Co. Roberson is named the nonprofit’s President and Chairman, and Thompson as its Secretary. The organization’s 2016 annual report lists Roberson and Thompson as the organization’s only two directors. The contact addresses for both directors on that document are for the Balch and Bingham law firm.

Thompson’s attorney Jim Shaw told POGO when asked for comment that “I do not know you and I do not really think I can pursue this conversation further.” Roberson has not responded to a request for comment.

To date, the Justice Department has not said Thompson committed a crime, and did not respond to a request for comment.

In June, the Strange campaign named Thompson as the head of its Financial Leadership Team. According to a statement from Strange at the time, Thompson “will lead our fundraising operation.” When presented with the previously unreported information on Thompson, the Strange campaign did not respond to POGO’s request for comment.

According to another IRS filing, the Alliance for Jobs and the Economy and another nonprofit, Business Alliance for Responsible Development (BARD), have a healthcare insurance arrangement together. BARD counts the Drummond Co. and Thompson’s company, Thompson Tractor, as members. Furthermore, Roberson and Thompson serve together on the Birmingham Business Alliance.

Thompson is an important player in Alabama’s political establishment. “Thompson’s influence in Alabama and national politics has been huge over the last couple of decades,” according to one Alabama news outlet. Thompson Tractor also has an 80-year relationship with the Drummond Co.

According to Cullinane Law Group, experts on nonprofit law, directors at tax-exempt organizations have a duty to “ensure legal and ethical integrity and maintain accountability” and to follow “all laws applying to the nonprofit – federal, state, and local laws and regulations.”

Thompson isn’t Strange’s only link to the bribery investigation. In late 2014 and early 2015, as Alabama’s Attorney General, Strange took official acts to oppose the EPA’s proposed actions at the Superfund site around the same time he took a total of $50,000 in campaign contributions from Drummond.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District Jay Town, who was confirmed by the Senate in August, both have personal and political connections to parties that have a stake in the outcome of the investigation. POGO has called for them to recuse themselves from the investigation. The investigation is being run by the U.S. Attorney’s Office now headed by Town.

As POGO and others have previously reported, Drummond Co. and Balch were among two of Sessions’ top campaign funding sources over the course of his Senate career.

Thompson has also made campaign contributions to Sessions.

Many Balch partners have worked directly for Sessions; a top Sessions deputy runs the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and was a Balch lobbyist until Inauguration Day (that deputy has recused himself from any matter involving Balch, including the Birmingham Superfund issue).

As for Town, he has advised Strange on political campaigns, and Strange supported Town’s nomination as U.S. Attorney.

Justice Department regulations require recusal when a Justice Department attorney has a “personal or political relationship with…Any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution; and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.”

Town’s spokeswoman did not respond to POGO’s request for comment on whether Town will recuse himself.

Sessions’ top spokeswoman at the Justice Department, Sarah Isgur Flores, emailed POGO that “the Attorney General considers his potential recusal on a matter-by-matter bases [sic] as may be needed. To the extent a matter comes to the attention of his office that may warrant consideration of recusal, the Attorney General reviews the issue and consults with the appropriate Department ethics experts.” She declined to comment on a follow-up question asking whether Sessions has considered this matter for potential recusal.

The DOJ began and publicly announced its investigation prior to Town’s confirmation as U.S. Attorney.

“This case gets at the heart of public corruption in Alabama,” Acting U.S. Attorney Robert Posey, a career official, said in June.

With Robinson’s guilty plea and pledge to cooperate with federal investigators, the investigation is now more likely to threaten members of Alabama’s political establishment and its key business allies. But parties connected to the case, such as Sessions, are in positions to influence the investigation’s direction. U.S. Attorney Town, a political appointee with no civil service protections who can be fired at will by Sessions, could also simply think twice about pursuing leads that would take him higher up the food chain from Robinson and could threaten his and Sessions’ political benefactors.