Last week, Kyle Whitmire, a columnist for Alabama Media Group–Advance Publications’ three Alabama newspapers–announced the results of his yearly “Scumbag of the Year” contest, naming the Alabama politician who had done the most to drag the Yellowhammer State through the mud.
At first glance, there was no doubt who 2017’s “winner” would be–Roy Moore. The only question seemed to be who would finish second. Would it be Governor Kay Ivey, who announced her support for Moore in the same breath that she said she believed the women who claimed he molested them and pursued them when they were young enough to be his daughters? Or would it be her predecessor, Robert Bentley, who tried to use state resources to cover up an affair with one of his aides?
Well, as it turned out, Moore didn’t win. Even more surprisingly, Ivey didn’t even medal, and Bentley almost didn’t make the list. How can you possibly do worse than molesting and improperly pursuing women, saying you’ll support them anyway, or covering up an affair on the state’s dime? Well, Whitmire thinks he may have found someone even worse–former Alabama state representative Oliver Robinson. Back in September, the Birmingham Democrat admitted that he’d taken $360,000 in bribes to oppose cleanup efforts in several Birmingham neighborhoods with contaminated soil.
Robinson served in the state house from 1998 until he abruptly resigned in November 2016, just over two years into his fifth term; unlike most members of state lower houses, Alabama state representatives serve four-year terms. He claimed that he wanted to avoid a potential conflict of interest that could have arisen when his daughter took a job as a legislative liaison to Bentley.
The real reason became clear in May, when Alabama Media Group reported that Robinson was the target of federal and state investigations into his relationship with Balch & Bingham, a white-shoe Birmingham law firm. That firm represented the owner of a coke mill located near several Birmingham neighborhoods that were being considered for addition to a Superfund site covering much of north Birmingham. Years of heavy industry had left the soil in this area so polluted that kids can’t play on it.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency considered adding these neighborhoods to the existing Superfund site, which was on the National Priorities List–the most polluted sites in the nation. So it came as something of a surprise when Robinson opposed adding these neighborhoods to the Superfund site, even though they would have qualified for long-term testing and cleanup.
Robinson later confirmed to WBHM, Birmingham’s NPR member station, that he was indeed the target of an investigation. Listen to the interview here.
A month after that interview, federal prosecutors in Birmingham charged Robinson with bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion. Watch the announcement here.
Prosecutors charged that Balch & Bingham made $360,000 in “donations” to the foundation that bore Robinson’s name in 2015 and 2016. In return, Robinson agreed to represent the interests of both Balch & Bingham and Drummond Company, owner of the coke mill. As part of the deal, Robinson urged residents to oppose adding the neighborhoods to the Superfund site, and lobbied the Alabama Environmental Commission to oppose the designation as well. If the EPA had added the neighborhoods to the Superfund site, Drummond faced having to pay tens of millions of dollars to clean them up.
According to Alabama Media Group, Robinson had already agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Read the plea agreement here. Through his attorney, Robinson apologized for having “let down the public, his constituents, and his family.” He formally pleaded guilty in September and was originally slated to be sentenced on December 7, but that has apparently been pushed back due to his cooperation with the investigation.
Robinson faced a maximum of 100 years in prison, though under sentencing guidelines he faces as little as 10 to 12 years and as much as 14 to 17 years. He also faces paying over $630,000 in restitution, and has agreed to never seek public office again. That agreement is mostly academic, since Alabama, like most states, does not allow convicted felons to seek office.
Anyone who thinks that’s too harsh should consider that Robinson engaged in one of the most egregious betrayals of public trust ever uncovered–on the same level as Bridgegate. Rather than fight for his constituents’ basic right to live in a safe and unpolluted environment, he kicked them in the teeth and sold them up the river. Considering the sheer egregiousness of his behavior, anything less than 10 years would have been a joke. After all, by his actions, the children of those neighborhoods may face years of health problems.
It should outrage us all when a politician betrays his constituents in this way. But it should especially outrage us as liberals when someone who is supposedly a Democrat does it. This is a betrayal of everything we stand for as a movement and as a party. We may be a big tent, but there is no room in that tent for someone who willfully puts his constituents in harm’s way.
Alabama Media Group columnist Roy S. Johnson believes that before Robinson goes to prison, he ought to tell the people of those neighborhoods “why he sold them out for a few pieces of change, why he was willing to potentially let them die.” If I were federal judge Abdul Kallon, I would ask Robinson if he has done so when he is finally sentenced. If there is any justice at all, it would go a long way toward determining how long Robinson spends in jail.
(featured image courtesy Alabama Media Group)