Friday, July 7, 2017

Already tied to Birmingham's Superfund scandal, Balch and Bingham becomes part of FBI investigation into misuse of BP oil-spill funds in Mississippi

It's been a rough couple of weeks for the Birmingham-based law firm Balch and Bingham. First, the firm was implicated in federal bribery, fraud, and conspiracy charges that led to a guilty plea from former Alabama Rep. Oliver Robinson on June 22. Now, come reports that the Balch firm is at the heart of an FBI investigation into possible use of BP oil-spill funds for personal gain in Mississippi.

Balch partner Joel Gilbert helped prepare a contract that called for Robinson to fight U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts to clean up a Superfund site in North Birmingham, according to a recent report at Another Balch partner, Teri T. Wyly, is connected to a BP-related contract with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that has attracted FBI attention, according to a report Tuesday at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

On top of that, the Superfund scandal reportedly has ensnared U.S. Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), and with that story reaching high heat, Strange's one-time campaign manager and mistress, Jessica Medeiros Garrison, left her "of counsel" position at . . . Balch and Bingham. Then, as the Strange story broke, Garrison's social-media profile mostly went dark. Hmm . . .

The Mississippi investigation is focused on Trudy Fisher, former DEQ director, and Amy Whitten, an attorney and private contractor involved in the disbursement of BP funds. From the Clarion-Ledger story by reporter Anna Wolfe:

In the three years since Director Trudy Fisher's resignation, federal investigators have looked into DEQ's activities under her leadership. The probe looks at contracts granted by DEQ in an attempt to determine whether Fisher personally benefited from them, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the investigation, including several people who have been interviewed by the FBI.

How does Balch and Bingham enter the picture? Wolfe explains:

Under Fisher, private contractor and attorney Amy Whitten reaped nearly $2 million in DEQ contracts, either directly with the agency or through subcontracts with law firm Balch and Bingham. Whitten, a well-known state contractor, had worked with a number of agencies and secured four previous DEQ contracts before Fisher took over the agency. . . . 

BP oil spill in Mississippi
The agency awarded and extended many of Whitten's contracts as millions began flowing into the state from BP following the oil spill. Early BP payments and the following settlement will ultimately result in nearly $2.2 billion for Mississippi, much of which will be paid out over the next 15 years.

Fisher, 57, and Whitten, 63, headed initial damage assessment efforts in Mississippi, Fisher as the federal representative for the state and Whitten as the alternate.

Heavily redacted financial records from Balch and Bingham are part of the FBI inquiry. Writes Wolfe:

Fisher announced her resignation in May 2014. This came just one week after her agency's wholesale redaction of public records came under fire during a Hinds County Chancery Court hearing. DEQ blacked out hundreds of pages of Balch and Bingham and Whitten invoices totaling roughly $6 million.

Purchases included first-class airfare for Fisher and Whitten at $1,774 per ticket in July 2012, as detailed on an invoice from Whitten to Balch and Bingham. The exact date, reason for and destination of their trip was not included.

Balch and Bingham attorney Teri Wyly, who led the firm's DEQ contract, said last week that she remembers taking two trips with Whitten and Fisher that July — one to San Antonio for a meeting with other state restoration leaders and one to Atlanta to meet with BP representatives. It was the first possible explanation given for the travel in three years of inquiries.

At least two partners at Balch and Bingham are in the cross hairs of federal investigators? That suggests the Birmingham legal community could be in for an upheaval like it has never seen.


Anonymous said...

Looks like I picked a bad time to stop sniffing glue . . . and to accept a job at Balch. Ooops!

Anonymous said...

What a shame if the Balch firm imploded and a bunch of lawyers were out of work -- NOT!

Anonymous said...

Good reporting, LS. Didn't know about this investigation in Mississippi involving Balch. Will be interesting to see if, etc. picks up on it.

Anonymous said...

Just like a bunch of lawyers, to try to make themselves rich by skimming money from an environmental disaster.

Anonymous said...

Please let the other attorney be Rob Fowler

Anonymous said...

Balch & Bingham are involved in so many schemes it is hard to count. They definitely are in the spotlight right now. BP scandal, Oliver Robinson, and they also tried to frame a Birmingham attorney too (read it on Shame on Balch & Bingham!

e.a.f. said...

ah, gee, isn't that too bad. lets hope all of these people get what they deserve. perhaps justice may have been long in coming but will be finally delivered, long term.

good reporting.