The administrator of EPA’s eight-state Southeastern regional office was deeply involved with lawyers and lobbyists now facing criminal charges over a scheme to thwart environmental cleanup efforts in a low-income area of Birmingham, Ala., according to newly released court records.
Records show EPA Region 4 chief Trey Glenn, who was then a private consultant, provided extensive services several years ago to the Balch & Bingham LLP law firm in connection with a sophisticated campaign to stop EPA from expanding one Birmingham-area Superfund site and adding it to the National Priorities List. Balch waged the campaign on behalf of Drummond Co., a politically influential coal company concerned about millions of dollars in potential liability.
But the effort allegedly turned criminal when two Balch attorneys and Drummond’s top lobbyist enlisted the help of a state lawmaker in the area with payoffs routed through a foundation, according to a federal indictment of the three men last September.
The state lawmaker, Rep. Oliver Robinson (D), had resigned in 2016 before agreeing to a plea bargain last year. The other three — Balch partners Joel Gilbert and Steven McKinney and Drummond Vice President David Roberson — all maintain their innocence.
A landmark trial that could put some of Alabama’s most powerful politicians on the witness stand began last week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. If found guilty on conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud charges, Gilbert, McKinney and Roberson could each get years in prison.
Glenn, who hasn’t been charged, didn’t reply to emailed questions late yesterday seeking more information on his role in the Superfund campaign and asking whether he was aware of any potentially illegal activity. He also didn’t reply to phone messages left at his Atlanta office yesterday and this morning.
It’s unclear whether Glenn has been contacted by federal law enforcement authorities.
Asked whether Glenn is under investigation, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham said in an email that Justice Department policy prohibits her from confirming or denying the existence of any inquiry. In an email today, EPA spokesman Larry Lincoln called Glenn "a trusted public servant," adding that he had complied with federal ethics requirements to recuse himself from matters involving former employers and clients. Glenn could be asked to testify at the trial in his personal capacity, Lincoln said, along with several other EPA staffers expected to be called as witnesses in their official capacity.
But for a roughly two-year period starting in mid-2014, Glenn, an environmental engineer by trade, participated in dozens of conference calls and meetings with Gilbert, McKinney and Roberson, according to Balch invoices that detail the firm’s work on the campaign.
Some of his work was related to technical issues like soil sampling; the invoices also show that he was in regular contact with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), which he had previously headed from 2005 to 2009.
Glenn’s participation in the Balch-led campaign was first reported by AL.com, a news organization that is covering the trial. The hundreds of pages in billing invoices, introduced as evidence by federal prosecutors, were added to the online court record Friday.
Pruitt named Glenn to head EPA’s Atlanta-based Region 4 office last August, saying he would bring "invaluable experience" to the job. EPA’s Region 4 office covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee (Greenwire, Aug. 22, 2017).
His tenure as ADEM director was rocky, however. In 2007, the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause to believe that he might have violated the state law to get the director’s post and referred the matter to a district attorney’s office for further investigation.
Glenn was also alleged to have taken trips on the dime of a state’s contractor’s public relations firm. He denied wrongdoing, and he was not charged after the district attorney eventually concluded that there were no "probable violations" of the state ethics law.
He then went to work for Blue Ridge Consulting Services Inc. and Strada Professional Services LLC, according to a recusal statement filed with EPA this past January.
Besides Drummond and Balch, his clients included Big Sky Environmental, a Birmingham-area garbage firm that drew notoriety earlier this year after a "poop train" carrying tons of waste from New York City stalled for months in a tiny Alabama town en route to the company’s landfill. In accordance with the Trump administration’s ethics policy, Glenn pledged to steer clear of involvement in "any particular matter" involving former clients for two years after joining EPA.
As outlined in the indictment, the Balch campaign had its origins in EPA’s 2013 decision to notify five companies that they were potentially responsible for elevated levels of arsenic and other contaminants at a Superfund site in north Birmingham known as "35th Avenue."
One of those companies was ABC Coke, a Drummond subsidiary; the potential liability for any company found responsible for the pollution amounted "to tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and fines," the indictment says.
A local environmental group then petitioned EPA to expand the site and launch a preliminary assessment of pollutants left behind by ABC Coke and other companies.
EPA, which eventually granted the petition, in 2014 also proposed adding the 35th Avenue site to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites needing special attention. That meant federal and state regulators could pursue remediation activities and then seek reimbursement from the companies held responsible.
On the witness list: Political heavyweights
From early 2014 though most of 2016,Gilbert, McKinney and Roberson "focused on protecting ABC Coke and Drummond Company from the tremendous potential costs," the indictment says, by attempting to prevent EPA both from adding the 35th Avenue site to the National Priorities List and from expanding it.
Robinson was allegedly given a lucrative consulting contract and monthly payments in return for siding with Balch and Drummond both in public and in meetings with regulators.
In 2015 and 2016, the Oliver Robinson Foundation received about $360,000; some of that money came from a specially formed nonprofit whose funders included corporate heavyweights like Alabama Power Co., a longtime Balch client, court records indicate.
For Balch and Bingham, which boasts more than 230 attorneys scattered through the South and Washington, D.C., the case is offering a window into its extensive political connections.
A list of potential witnesses read out by prosecutors in court last week includes Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Republican who was Alabama’s other senator until President Trump named him last year to head the Justice Department, and Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), according to AL.com and other news organizations.
Both Gilbert and McKinney are on indefinite leave, a firm spokeswoman said today.
Roberson’s LinkedIn profile still lists him as Drummond’s vice president for governmental and regulatory affairs. He didn’t immediately reply today to phone and email messages seeking confirmation of his employment status.