Friday, April 13, 2018

Environmental racism in Alabama is driven by "good ole boy network," fueled by dirty cash and corrupt machinations of Jeff Sessions and Luther Strange

North Birmingham Superfund cleanup

The North Birmingham Superfund scandal is a classic case of environmental racism -- driven by "a good ole boy network littered with sketchy cash" -- according to a new report from an online magazine about African-American culture. Two well-known corporate entities in Birmingham -- Alabama Power and Southern Company -- are right in the middle of the scandal, but so far have managed to keep a respectful distance from the fallout.

In a piece titled "Eau de Bull, Again: Good Ole Boys Have ‘No Concerns About Anything Inappropriate’ in Environmental-Racism Case," The Root points to Trump attorney general Jeff Sessions and Luther Strange, both former U.S. senators, as key figures in a white network that consistently tramples the rights of black residents in low-income neighborhoods. The network largely revolves, the report states, around Drummond Co. and the Balch Bingham law firm.

Four people -- two Balch lawyers, one Drummond executive, and former State Rep. Oliver Robinson -- have been indicted and entered not-guilty pleas. But The Root says other key players have been kept under wraps, to this point. From the article:

In September, Robinson entered a plea deal. To reduce the 100 years in prison he faced from seven federal offenses, Robinson confessed as to who, what, how and which angle of bent he found most comfortable while taking bribes. Two Balch lawyers, Joel Gilbert and Steven McKinney, and one Drummond vice president were indicted on counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States, bribery, wire fraud and money laundering. All three have pleaded not guilty.

But the buck doesn’t stop here. Rather, its tracks drunkenly meander out into a good ole boy network littered with sketchy cash.

Only people from Balch and Drummond have been indicted. However, they weren’t the only ones contributing to the nonprofit work from which Robinson siphoned profits. Another utility company represented by Balch -- Alabama Power, for example -- donated $30,000 to Robinson’s foundation in 2015.

Ah, Alabama Power, part of the Southern Company umbrella. Those corporate names will get anyone's attention in Birmingham. And The Root suggests they have received softball treatment in the Superfund case:

Alabama Power, a coal titan in and of itself, is a subsidiary of Southern Co., America’s second-largest utility. Both entities share more relations with Balch than sister-wives. Executives at Southern and Balch swap out like Pok√©mon cards. Their little black book of political donees is Old Testament-thick.

Just as an example: Balch was founded in the ’20s by the brother of Alabama Power’s president to focus on the latter’s legal affairs. Southern and Balch were Jeff Sessions’ biggest donors when he was an Alabama senator. When Sessions became attorney general, Jeffrey Wood -- who worked as Sessions’ environmental and energy counsel until going to lobby for Balch and Southern in 2014 -- was made head of the ENRD. When the Trump administration replaced the EPA director overseeing the 35th Avenue site, it picked Trey Glenn, an Alabama official who worked for Balch Bingham in 2016, to oversee the 35th Avenue site.

To have an affiliation with Balch or Southern is to be two -- at most -- degrees of separation from either a new job at the other company or a convenient position in the Trump administration.

The plot thickens as we see the Trump White House enter the fray. And The Root points to K.B. Forbes, publisher of the Web site and founder of Consejo de Latinos Unidos (CDLU). Forbes' reporting has focused heavily on an apparent conspiracy where Balch attorneys tried to steal the lucrative collections business established by Birmingham solo practitioner Burt Newsome. As we've reported earlier, Luther Strange's nasty fingerprints appear to be all over the attempted financial hit on Newsome.

Forbes recently interviewed a key Southern Company executive and found the company sees no reason to be concerned about the Superfund scandal. From The Root:

Cousin-loving nepotism and corrupt congressmen make for an interesting conflict-of-interest cocktail. But for those not sipping the Kool-Aid, Southern’s recent response to the advocacy group Consejo de Latinos Unidos tastes fishy.

K.B. Forbes, head of the CDLU, recently interviewed Southern’s general counsel, Jim Kerr. Forbes submitted a plan of action that Southern could take to wash its hands of Balch’s misdeeds in the Robinson scandal, including measures such as these: “Immediately conduct an internal top to bottom review of all partners and whose actions that may be unethical, criminal or unscrupulous. Fire all the bad apples regardless of tenure or seniority.”

Kerr responded, “We do not see a place to step into [the Robinson scandal].” That rings hollow considering that Wood, Balch’s point lobbyist for Southern, was lobbying on Superfund policy at the time on behalf of Southern. In fact, Wood has specifically recused himself from any matters at the ENRD pertaining to the 35th Avenue site, suggesting that he was specifically lobbying about the site. After Forbes pointed this out, Kerr took a long pause before going full Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “We reviewed the information. I have no concerns about anything inappropriate.”

When I asked Kerr about his comments, which Forbes surreptitiously recorded, I was referred to Southern’s media strategist Schuyler Baehman: “I can confirm that it is Jim Kerr in the conversation. Beyond that, we have no further comment.”

Southern may not have been indicted, but the company could be doing more to distance itself from a firm whose web of cash sticks to every facet of a conspiracy to disenfranchise poor blacks.

Talk of nepotism and corruption takes us back to Sessions and Strange:

Robinson aside, Balch ghost-wrote a letter from then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, which argued against the EPA’s proposal to expand the 35th Avenue site. Strange also wrote another letter, falsely stating that Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management’s initial assessment was that the 35th Avenue site shouldn’t be put on the National Priorities List.

That, of course, came after Drummond had slipped contributions of $25,000 and $50,000 to Strange. Was that a quid pro quo that would amount to federal-funds bribery and could send "Big Lutha" to the Big House? Sure sounds like it. Speaking of federal prison, let's not forget Jeff Sessions, who already is awash in the Trump-Russia scandal:

Mother Jones also discovered that a 2015 “Balch Bingham newsletter touted a meeting with Jeff Sessions to discuss the 35th Avenue site and predicted a letter, signed by top Alabama lawmakers, would shortly be sent to the EPA expressing concerns over the agency’s methodology when it came to assigning blame.” It was. Sessions and his staffer Brandon Middleton (who would later become Wood’s deputy at the ENRD) arranged meetings with EPA officials to argue against putting the 35th Avenue site on the NPL.

Now the funny part: Sessions ultimately oversees this corruption investigation. He’s been asked multiple time to recuse himself. He hasn’t acknowledged any such steps.

But hey, no need to be concerned about anything inappropriate.

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