Steven McKinney, a former chair of the American Bar Association’s section on environmental energy and resources, has been charged with fellow Balch & Bingham partner Joel Gilbert and a coal mining company executive in an alleged bribery scheme involving former Alabama state Rep. Oliver Robinson Jr.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama announced Thursday that the two Balch & Bingham partners had been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery, conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and wire fraud as a result of their involvement in an alleged plan to have Robinson oppose an environmental cleanup plan in Birmingham, Alabama.
Robinson, a former basketball star at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who played briefly in the National Basketball Association before serving in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1998 to 2016, was hit with bribery and conspiracy charges by federal prosecutors in late June.
The 57-year-old Robinson reached a plea deal—he appeared in a federal court earlier this month to admit to bribery, fraud and tax evasion charges—and local news reports identified Gilbert and David Roberson, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Vestavia, Alabama-based coal miner Drummond Co. Inc., as being “Attorney #1” and “Employee #1,” two unidentified individuals cited in the government’s case against Robinson.
Balch & Bingham has removed from its website the biography pages of McKinney, chair of its environmental and natural resources practice, and Gilbert. Gilbert has worked at the Birmingham-based regional firm since 2003, according to his profile on professional networking website LinkedIn, where a similar profile for McKinney (pictured right) shows that he has worked at the firm since 1979.
In a statement by a firm spokeswoman, Balch & Bingham said that it learned Thursday of the federal grand jury action against its two partners, each of whom have been placed on an indefinite leave of absence.
“While we note that Mr. Gilbert has denied the charges and vowed to vigorously defend himself, and expect Mr. McKinney to do the same, the charges allege actions that, if proven to be true, are contrary to the ethical values that guide our firm’s attorneys and staff,” Balch & Bingham said. “We take these issues very seriously. 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 … We will continue to ensure that all of the firm attorneys and staff, across our footprint, fully understand and are adhering to the highest standards of legal and ethical compliance.”
Balch & Bingham has retained W. Warren Hamel, chair of Venable’s investigations and white-collar defense group in Baltimore, to represent it in the government’s corruption probe. Hamel, who specializes in environmental criminal defense work, served as chief of the environmental crimes and enforcement office unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland from 1997 to 2001.
Gilbert, 45, is being represented by Jack Sharman, leader of the white-collar defense and corporate investigations practice at Lightfoot, Franklin & White, a Birmingham-based firm that was also recently retained by Auburn University to handle an internal inquiry related to another high-profile federal corruption case announced this week involving college basketball coaches.
Sharman said in a lengthy statement that Gilbert had done nothing wrong, calling his client a “longtime partner at a leading law firm” with a “reputation for honesty and integrity.” Sharman noted that Gilbert did “what is routine for good counselors to do for corporate and individual clients every day—he engaged a consultant through a written contract to perform real and lawful services.”
McKinney, 62, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The government’s case against him and Gilbert asserts that Balch & Bingham represented Drummond in the company’s effort to avoid shouldering millions of dollars in remediation costs related to the expansion of a Superfund site designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in north Birmingham.
As part of that representation, Balch & Bingham, Drummond and another entity paid $360,000 to Robinson in 2015 and 2016 through his Birmingham-based Oliver Robinson Foundation to serve as an advocate in north Birmingham neighborhoods where federal prosecutors claim the former Alabama public official sought to convince residents not to have their properties tested for elevated levels of arsenic, benzo(a)pyrene and lead. Alabama’s murky ethics laws allow public officials to make money from some consulting contracts, according to local news reports.
Earlier this year, when news of Robinson’s pending legal troubles emerged in the Alabama press, Balch & Bingham defended a $134,000 payment it made to the former legislator’s nonprofit as being made under a contract for services. The 230-lawyer firm, which saw R. Stanton Blanton take over as managing partner in January 2016, has grown in recent years through its acquisitions of Birmingham’s Presley Burton & Collier and Jacksonville, Florida-based Stoneburner Berry Glocker Purcell & Greenhut.
Balch & Bingham is also well-connected politically, with close ties to U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions III, as well as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who in May named former longtime Balch & Bingham partner Will Sellers to a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court. (Sellers, poised to seek a full term on the state’s top court, filled a seat on the bench left vacant by an associate justice tapped to fill the position of former Chief Justice Roy Moore, who won a Republican primary this week ahead of a special election to replace Sessions in the U.S. Senate.)
The government’s indictment claims that on June 22, 2015, Gilbert instructed Balch & Bingham’s accounting department not to make reference to the Oliver Robinson Foundation on invoices sent to Drummond and to remove references to the nonprofit on two other invoices the firm had already sent its client. McKinney had previously approved a payment request by Gilbert to the firm’s accounting department for a $14,000 check to Robinson’s foundation, according to the indictment.
Roberson, the Drummond executive indicted in the case, has retained a high-powered legal team led by Jones Day of counsel Henry “Hank” Asbill, partner Barbara Harding and associates David Bouchard and Anthony Dick in Washington, D.C., as well as Birmingham lawyer Brett Bloomston. Asbill said in a statement that Roberson is innocent of the charges returned against him by the grand jury and that his client looks forward to clearing his name in court.
Federal prosecutors in Birmingham, along with officials from the FBI and IRS, held a press conference Thursday to discuss their decision to charge Roberson, McKinney and Gilbert after reaching a plea with Robinson, who is being represented by Birmingham’s Jaffe & Drennan.
“McKinney and Gilbert were the brains behind any public or official action taken by Robinson—and why wouldn’t they? They helped Drummond buy him and they were getting what they paid for,” said Jay Town, the newly-appointed Republican U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “This is the worst type of public corruption. It was all done for the greed of a few and at the expense of so many families and children living in potentially toxic areas.”