The Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division is responsible for enforcing compliance with federal environmental laws. So to find that the fingerprints of coal lobbyist-turned-ENRD acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Wood are on an environmental-racism scandal is, actually, pretty par for the course with the Trump administration.
In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency found elevated levels (pdf) of arsenic, lead and carcinogenic hydrocarbons—courtesy of a nearby coking plant—near 35th Avenue in the black neighborhood of North Birmingham, Ala. The EPA established the neighborhood as a Superfund site, a class of highly polluted areas where contributions from culpable polluters and the government pay for cleanup. In 2013 the EPA and the original offender, Walter Coke, argued that four other companies were also likely responsible for the pollution, including two clients of nearby law firm Balch & Bingham: Drummond and ABC Coke.
Over the next two years, the agency pushed to add the site to its National Priorities List, or NPL—which would have granted more authority to require those implicated to fund cleanup initiatives. It also proposed extending testing to Tarrant, a neighborhood a mile northeast of 35th Avenue. Pushback from business interests and politicians was swift and fierce: In 2014, then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange argued that the state wouldn’t provide any funding for the cleanup, and in 2015, Drummond and Balch & Bingham sued the EPA (pdf).
Then an unlikely ally emerged for Balch & Bingham’s clients: Oliver Robinson. The charismatic basketball player-cum-58th District congressman had long been involved in the local community through his galas celebrating black achievement and his charity, the Robinson Foundation. Now he was striking a markedly different tone.
Spearheading a horseshit-sandwich campaign contradicted by EPA evidence, Robinson argued that the soil testing would lower property values. His daughter helped stoke distrust in the feds, sending out dissuading emails and erecting signs urging folks to “Get Smart Tarrant—Don’t Let EPA Fool You!” Ultimately, the NPL proposal died. The implicated companies have yet to contribute to the cleanup, and Robinson resigned last year—but not before taking bribes and implicating Wood, the acting assistant attorney general entrusted with protecting the environment, in a scandal.
After an investigation by two agencies, Robinson entered a plea agreement June 22 on charges of conspiracy, bribery and fraud for using his nonprofit to funnel a $134,000 payment from Balch & Bingham and $30,000 from Alabama Power—a subsidiary of Southern Co., one of the largest and most politically powerful coal-dependent utility groups, and Balch & Bingham’s biggest client.
During that time, Balch & Bingham’s point lobbyist for Southern Co. and Alabama Power was a brilliant partner by the name of Jeffrey Wood. Before that, in 2014, Wood was also counsel for Alabama Sen. and Keebler elf-turned-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Now, as acting assistant attorney general of the ENRD, Wood has the job of enforcing laws related to the environment, natural resources, health and pollution—prosecuting environmental crimes and defending against lawsuits challenging environmental protection.
That Wood was lobbying a week before assuming the ENRD job on Donald Trump’s inauguration day might sound as if it violates Monsieur Great Again’s marquee, swamp-draining ban on former lobbyists taking positions that give them oversight over their old lobbying interests. In practice, Wood was simply recused from presiding over issues (pdf) related to several dozen firms, companies and cases—including, specifically, the North Birmingham Superfund site.
In fact, Wood—Balch & Bingham’s go-to Southern lobbyist—was specifically recused from touching the Superfund site, and during his tenure at the law firm, he was one of its few lobbyists with Superfund policy expertise. Shortly after the Robinsons’ campaign, he even shifted to lobbying on Superfund policies on Capitol Hill.
To be legally safe here, none of this is to say that Wood had direct involvement in Robinson’s misinformation campaign or bribery. Robinson acknowledged taking bribes from a partner, but that partner remains unnamed.
The Root reached out to Wood and several of his associates from his tenure with Sessions and Balch & Bingham, but the only response, after we were redirected to the law firm’s public relations person, was, “Each of our lobbyists file registrations describing their lobbying activities,” a reference back to the very lobbying disclosure forms we hyperlinked in an email to them.
Luckily, we might soon find out more about the extent of Wood’s involvement. After Balch & Bingham was dragged before a federal grand jury in March, and Robinson specifically mentioned working with one of their partners, there’s sure to be a follow-up.
What’s more, the Trump-Russia investigation’s special counsel is looking into Balch & Bingham and Wood, thanks to K.B. Forbes, leader of the advocacy group Consejo de Latinos Unidos, or CDLU. He publicized the law firm’s ties to Black Hall, a Russian-linked aerospace company (which was originally going to host the rally where Sessions endorsed Trump). Afterward, Balch & Bingham’s website and the résumé of the lobbyist who successfully changed Russia sanctions on Mi-17 helicopters—Black Hall’s bread and butter—were scrubbed of all mention of the company.
In response, Forbes submitted his research to special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee, who are currently reviewing Balch & BIngham’s affairs.
For now, we’re left with just results of a smell test: Something smells like arsenic, aromatic hydrocarbons and bullshit, and it could be that the man charged with prosecuting on behalf of the environment is complicit in a scandal of economic and environmental racism, and boasts sprawling conflicts of interest that could ensure many of his energy- and utilities-related decisions turn a profit for old employers.