Then-Senator Jeff Sessions—now the Attorney General, America’s top law enforcement official—and his Senate staff coordinated closely with individuals recently convicted of bribing an Alabama lawmaker, according to documents reviewed by the Project On Government Oversight in conjunction with Mother Jones. Sessions’ office assisted the individuals in an elaborate scheme to oppose an EPA effort to make a coal company pay for its pollution. The recent bribery convictions involve that same scheme.
David Roberson, vice president of Drummond Coal, and Joel Gilbert, partner at the Birmingham-based law firm Balch & Bingham, were found guilty of paying Alabama lawmaker Oliver Robinson $360,000 to oppose a federal environmental cleanup effort that could have cost Drummond millions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had determined that Drummond Coal was one of the companies potentially responsible for the vast pollution.
As a countermeasure, Drummond’s attorneys at Balch & Bingham used their relationship with Sessions’ office as part of their effort to block the EPA’s proposal to expand the cleanup.
The documents reviewed by POGO and Mother Jones were entered into the court record as part of the trial, but then placed under seal by the judge. They show that there was extensive contact between Sessions’ office, Roberson, Gilbert, and a second Balch attorney named Steven McKinney—involving two trips to DC and at least 13 phone calls—about a Superfund cleanup site in North Birmingham. A February 2016 letter to the EPA, opposing its actions, was signed by Sessions and placed on congressional letterhead was ghostwritten by the law firm’s attorneys and the coal company executive.
Balch attorneys also coached Sessions’ staff on how to attack the EPA’s position before Agency officials were hauled into the Sessions’ Senate office for a meeting in July 2016—one of the Balch attorneys flew to DC to meet with Sessions’ staff the day before. During this time, Balch and Drummond continued to pour cash into Sessions’ campaign fund. As Attorney General, Sessions continues to refuse to say whether or not he had recused himself from Roberson and Gilbert’s trial, despite his conflict of interest.
These events have exposed the ties between powerful companies like Drummond and Balch and the Alabama political establishment—and to Sessions. The EPA’s plan to accelerate clean-up efforts never gained steam, leaving an impoverished community in North Birmingham still grappling with contamination--and the companies deemed potentially responsible have not paid to clean up the pollution adjacent to their industrial operations.
“This case would matter even if it didn’t involve the most senior law enforcement officer in our government. It is a black-and-white example of how corruption can directly harm the public. And, at a bare minimum, Sessions and future Attorneys General should always publicly announce when they recuse from matters where their ties could lead the public to question the impartial administration of justice,” said Danielle Brian, executive director at POGO.
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