BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Two attorneys with a prominent Alabama law firm and a coal company executive have been indicted on charges of bribing a state legislator to oppose an environmental cleanup plan, federal court documents showed Thursday.
Joel Gilbert, 45, and Steven McKinney, 62, are named on charges including conspiracy and bribery, records show. They are partners handling environmental litigation with Balch & Bingham, one of Alabama's leading law firms.
Drummond Co. vice president David Roberson, 66, was charged with the same crimes.
U.S. Attorney Jay Town, right, discusses the indictment of two prominent lawyers and a coal executive during a news conference in Birmingham, Ala., on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Town said the three men are accused of conspiring to bribe a former state legislator who previously pleaded guilty in a scheme to lessen the impact of an environmental cleanup. At left is Angel Castillo, the FBI's acting assistant special agent in charge. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
The three are accused of bribing former state Rep. Oliver Robinson, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to accepting $360,000 in payments. Prosecutors say the law firm represented Drummond, and Robinson got a contract to oppose an expansion of an environmental cleanup site linked to Drummond.
The law firm said both Gilbert and McKinney had been placed on indefinite leave of absence.
"We are continuing to cooperate fully with government authorities because, in part, we believe strongly that our firm is not implicated more broadly in the alleged conduct," said a statement from Balch & Bingham.
Gilbert's lawyer said he is innocent, and McKinney did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Roberson's attorneys said their client is innocent, adding in a statement that the grand jury that returned the charges "heard only one side of the evidence."
"David looks forward to his day in court and expects to be acquitted of all charges by a jury of his peers in a trial where he will have the right to confront the prosecution's evidence," the statement added.
Robinson pleaded guilty three weeks ago to bribery and other charges. A prosecutor said there was no indication that others at Drummond or Balch & Bingham were involved, but he added the conspiracy went so deep the two attorneys wrote public statements for Robinson.
"They helped Drummond buy him and they were getting what they paid for," said U.S. Attorney Jay Town.
In a statement, Drummond Co. said it retained the Balch & Bingham law firm when confronted with an environmental issue and that the law firm then engaged the Oliver Robinson Foundation for community outreach on the matter. The statement said "Drummond understood this process was lawful and proper" and noted "all three men deny the charges, and must be presumed innocent."
EPA officials designated an area in Birmingham as a Superfund site because of elevated levels of arsenic, lead and other chemicals. In 2013 they notified a division of Drummond Coal Co. it was one of five companies potentially responsible for the pollution.
In 2014, the EPA considered adding the site to the national priority list and expanding it into other neighborhoods.
Prosecutors said Robinson took a contract with Balch & Bingham that paid him to represent the firm and its clients on "environmental issues in north Birmingham." Robinson was paid $360,000 under the contract during 2015 and 2016, prosecutors said.
Balch & Bingham describes itself as a corporate law firm with more than 230 attorneys and lobbyists in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Washington, D.C. The firm also was a major supporter of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his time as Alabama's attorney general and a U.S. senator, donating more than $140,000 to his campaigns starting in 1995, according to opensecrets.org, which tracks political donations.
The firm's website said Gilbert's and McKinney's practices focus mainly on environmental issues including the Clean Water Act and Superfund projects.
A statement from Gilbert's lawyer, Jack Sharman, called the contract with Robinson "both lawful and common." The firm entered the contract with Robinson's private foundation on behalf of Drummond to assist with a "grassroots effort to understand what EPA was doing" in the area and to address "factual inaccuracies and faulty science," Sharman said.
Alabama's ethics law, which generally prohibits public officials from making money off their positions, allows such consulting work, said Sharman.
Robinson is set to be sentenced Dec. 7.
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