The fortunes of Attorney General Jeff Sessions have long been connected to a blue-chip law firm in Alabama.
Based in Birmingham and blessed with an air of local aristocracy, Balch & Bingham has provided Sessions with key advisers and many thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over two decades.
But now, the law firm’s support has turned into a burden for the embattled attorney general.
Two Balch & Bingham attorneys, along with an agent from a Balch client, coal producer Drummond Co., were indicted Thursday by the U.S. attorney general’s office in Birmingham on charges of conspiracy and bribery, one of two cases under federal investigation with links to the firm.
The government alleges that the three men made a $360,000 payoff to former state Rep. Oliver Robinson Jr., who pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal conspiracy and bribery charges.
Ongoing federal investigations in Alabama and Mississippi, as well as Balch’s ties to a Russian aircraft dealer, are providing Sessions’ political opponents with ammunition.
Several advocacy groups are calling on Sessions to recuse himself from all investigations involving Balch. One is calling for the federal government to halt all dealings with the firm until the extent of its work regarding Russian-U.S. relations is vetted.
“This is not an isolated case, and we’ve seen how U.S. attorneys general can influence and decide which cases are most heavily pursued,” argued Michael Hansen, executive director of the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, a local environmental group, who said that Balch and Drummond are powerful, well-connected organizations with wide influence.
He added that Sessions should recuse himself in order to “remove all appearances of impropriety.”
The Department of Justice did not return RealClearInvestigations’ calls or emails.
Calls for recusal are not uncommon in politics. They often rest on broad suggestions and amorphous perceptions of conflict and pointedly raise questions about an opponent’s integrity.
“In some cases, the link may be tenuous, but public officials do have a responsibility to maintain a trust in government,” said Hana Callaghan, who runs the government ethics program at Santa Clara University. “It really goes to whether or not the action is giving the appearance of impropriety.”
The Robinson case presents important questions for Sessions as it involves allegations that a longtime ally bribed at least one politician.
Thursday’s indictments allege that Balch & Bingham partners Joel Gilbert and Steven McKinney and Drummond Co. Vice President David Roberson bribed Rep. Robinson so that he would urge his constituents to resist the EPA’s push to clean up a hazardous Superfund site in his district, work that would have cost Drummond millions of dollars.
Gilbert and McKinney have been placed on indefinite leaves of absence, the law firm said in a statement.
“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,” the statement added.
"Joel Gilbert is innocent of these charges," his attorney, Jack Sharman, said in a statement. "This is a case that never should have been brought. Joel represented a client in a legal dispute with the EPA, a powerful and, in this case, over-reaching federal agency."
As Rep. Robinson worked at community outreach to oppose the EPA action, Balch lobbyist and Sessions’ former general counsel Jeffrey Wood began to press federal lawmakers on Superfund issues in late 2015, according to lobbying reports.
Wood, who was appointed by President Trump as acting attorney general for the environmental enforcement arm of the Department of Justice in January, was lobbying Sessions on behalf of Alabama Power, which Drummond supplies with coal.
According to a December 2015 Balch & Bingham in-house newsletter, “Balch has met with Senator Jeff Sessions … on the emerging issues in Superfund. … We anticipate that key members of the Alabama congressional delegation will issue a letter on this topic shortly.”
Balch has for years been among Sessions’ top home state donors, giving $140,375 to his campaigns and affiliated PACs since 1995. Balch client Alabama Power is a subsidy of utility giant Southern Company, which has donated $174,765 to Sessions in that same period.
Two Balch lobbyists, including Wood, have worked for Sessions in the past. Wood in February recused himself from any matters regarding Balch, Alabama Power as well as Southern Company and its affiliates. He also stepped away from any issues regarding the Superfund site in Birmingham.
Wood did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Sessions is also facing questions regarding Balch’s Washington efforts on behalf of Black Hall Aerospace, the U.S. arm of a Russian-backed group that handles operations, training and mechanical work on Russian-made helicopters owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. The law firm lobbied Congress to relieve sanctions so Black Hall could work on the aircraft.
This has led to at least one call for the federal government to halt all dealings with Balch until the extent of its work regarding Russian-U.S. relations is vetted.
“Sessions is involved with a law firm that admitted one of its lobbyists worked to change U.S. sanctions against some Russian companies,” said K.B. Forbes, executive director of Consejo de Latinos Unidos, a Los Angeles-based consumer advocacy group. “He needs to reexamine the Balch lobbying that loosened Russian sanctions for one of its clients.”
Sessions recused himself in March from the U.S. probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, citing his work as a campaign adviser to President Trump.
Shortly after he announced his recusal, Balch changed its website bio of lobbyist Bill Stiers, removing specific reference to efforts “to “change specific provisions to sanctions imposed by the U.S. government against certain Russian companies.” The revised version stated that he had “represented [an] aviation solutions provider.”
Balch said in a statement in May that the firm changed the site “to avoid any misunderstanding as to the nature of our representation.”
The website scrub doesn’t necessarily indicate anything nefarious, said Callaghan, the ethics director at Santa Clara University.
“Until we change our campaign finance laws, there is only so much vetting you can do of political donors and you are going to get money from people you don’t necessarily want money from.”
Balch & Bingham says it has more than 230 attorneys and lobbyists in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, and Washington, D.C. -- though it is hardly the largest law firm in the South, or even Alabama.
Still, the power it has achieved “is amazing,” said Michael Rebebian, a political consultant in Mississippi, who for years has collected public records related to Balch’s contract with the state to manage funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. “They have people everywhere, anywhere there is power.”
Despite the law firm’s troubles, Sessions is going to be reluctant to cut his ties to Balch & Bingham, said Jenny Carroll, a law professor at the University of Alabama, given the long relationship and trust the attorney general has for the firm.
“There are political reasons he wants them there for him, and I’m sure there are lots of people at that firm who supported him and his efforts as a senator,” Carroll said. “This is why he wanted someone [from Balch] with him during his confirmation hearings. It’s good politics for you to recognize those people and give them a seat at the table as you ascend in power.”
Carroll is referring to Ed Haden, a Balch environmental lawyer and former counsel to Sessions in Washington, who was among the lawyers appearing with Sessions during his confirmation hearing in January.
“What is confusing about Sessions and a number of other folks in this administration is that they seem to talk a lot about changing business as usual but they also seem to be engaging in the same way as folks before them,” Carroll said.