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  • Donald V. Watkins

AL.com: A Master of Dirty Tricks

Updated: Jan 17, 2019


By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on January 16, 2019


On July 20, 2018, a Balch & Bingham attorney and the Drummond Company Vice President of Government Affairs were found guilty in Birmingham, Alabama federal court on all charges involving the bribery of Alabama State Representative Oliver Robinson following a four-week trial.


Balch partner Joel Gilbert and Drummond VP David Roberson were convicted on all six criminal charges (i.e., conspiracy, bribery, three counts of honest services wire fraud, and money laundering).


The two defendants were accused of bribing former state Rep. Oliver Robinson to oppose the Environmental Protection Agency's expansion of a Superfund site, and also to oppose prioritizing the site's expensive cleanup. Robinson pled guilty to several related charges and was sentenced on September 27, 2018 to 33 months in prison, followed by a supervised release period of three years.


On October 23, 2018, Joel Gilbert was sentenced to five years in federal prison, followed by a supervised release period of two years. David Roberson was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, followed by one year of supervised release. Each defendant was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and ordered to complete 100 hours per year of community service while on supervised release.


Among the reporters who covered this high-profile trial for AL.com was Kyle Whitmire. He wrote over a dozen opinion columns and tweeter threads on the lead up to the trial, the trial itself, and the sentencing of these defendants.


Whitmire’s Undisclosed Conflict of Interest


While covering the trial for AL.com, Whitmire made this July 2, 2018 public plea on his Facebook page: “Time for a little crowd sourcing. Here are two court exhibits: Billing documents from Balch & Bingham showing work done during its fight against the EPA in north Birmingham. Everybody take a look and shout out anything conspicuous you see.”


Michael Hansen, the executive director of G.A.S.P., shared Whitmire’s Facebook plea later that day. “Got a little time to help Kyle out by scanning these documents (exhibits from the bribery trial!) for things that stand out and raise a red flag? It’s wild how often Gasp is mentioned.”


G.A.S.P. -- the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution -- was formed in 2009 (under the name “Alabama First”) as an advocacy group for promoting clean air policies and environmental protection initiatives in and around Birmingham.


As a result of the guilty verdicts in the Gilbert and Roberson cases, Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen issued the following statement on July 23, 2018:


“This was a great outcome for the people of north Birmingham and all of Alabama. It is rare that corruption is rooted out, and it’s even more rare that those who do the corrupting are held accountable. We could not be more proud that our years of dogged legal and advocacy work led to the exposure of corruption.


While we are thrilled that justice was upheld for the people of north Birmingham, we are cognizant of the fact that this is not the end, but rather a beginning. We are calling all of our friends and neighbors to join us in committing to the fight for environmental justice for every Alabamian. Now is the time to become a member of Gasp and to join with us as we reaffirm our commitment to the people of Collegeville, Harriman Park, North Birmingham, Fairmont, Tarrant, Inglenook, and all of the city’s 99 neighborhoods.”


Exactly one week after Joel Gilbert and David Roberson were sentenced, Kyle Whitmire aided G.A.S.P.’s membership drive by appearing in an October 30, 2018 promotional posting on the group’s Facebook page for the documentary “Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret.”


The Whitmire-G.A.S.P. promotional appearance occurred while the criminal case was still very active on the trial court's docket. In fact, on August 20, 2018, the two defendants asked the trial judge to either acquit them or give them a new trial.

Whitmire was G.A.S.P.’s sympathizer/advocate all along, but he never disclosed this important fact to the public while he was covering the trial. Instead, Whitmire pretended to be a "disinterested party" who was simply performing objective reporting on the trial for AL.com.


Without explanation, the Whitmire-G.A.S.P. post was quickly deleted. Although Whitmire had been inadvertently exposed as an "interested party," this deletion action came too late. I located the post and preserved it as evidence of Whitmire's undisclosed conflict of interest.


The deleted Whitmire-G.A.S.P. post is depicted in the screenshot accompanying this article.


The Birmingham News' History of Undisclosed Conflicts of Interest


In a January 3, 2019 article titled “The Birmingham News’ 16 Million Undisclosed Conflict of Interest,” I outed The Birmingham News on its undisclosed conflict of interest relating to me. The article disclosed a June 11, 2004 Alabama Supreme Court case that affirmed a $16 million award of compensatory and punitive damages against The Birmingham News for serial acts of fraud the newspaper committed against six of its former distributors.

Privately, The Birmingham News blamed me for this devastating Supreme Court loss because I, acting in my capacity as an arbitrator, authored the 49-page arbitration ruling that was upheld by the Supreme Court (with only a $4 million downward adjustment from the original $20 million award due to the Court’s removal of one element of damages). After losing in the Supreme Court, the News paid off the court judgment won by the plaintiffs. There was no insurance coverage available to pay a judgment for fraud.


The Birmingham News never published an article about its fraudulent conduct or the payment of the $16 million court judgment in this case. Instead, the News publicly and maliciously started attacking me and my character every chance it got.


The Birmingham News' character assassination elevated to the point where editorial columnist John Archibald and Reckon Managing Editor John Hammontree wrote and published a fabricated racist quotation (i.e., my job during Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington’s term in office was to “kick white people’s ass”) that was attributed to me in articles they wrote on November 29, 2018 and December 31, 2018, respectively. Of course, I never made this racist statement, on or off the record.


After I made a formal demand for a retraction of this racist statement, AL.com issued a so-called “retraction” in a manner that was designed to perpetuate the intended effects of the false racist message that was embedded in the two articles. If there was any doubt that AL.com intended to falsely portray me as a racist, this doubt was removed by the way the media organization buried the "retraction" to make sure it was not seen by its "click-bait" readers.


AL.com, which operates The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, and Mobile Free Press, is the state’s largest self-described "media organization." In reality, AL.com is nothing more than a closet advocate for special interest groups, a smear-sheet aimed at targeted opponents, a rag-sheet for sports junkies, a master of dirty secrets, and a social media platform for “click-bait” readers who love throwing anonymous spitballs and wallowing in negative racial stereotypes.


This was The Birmingham News' role in the infamous COINTELPRO program -- it is a master of dirty tricks. The News serves no other useful purpose. This is the only role it knows -- smearing other people's character on demand.


PHOTO: Screenshot of AL.com columnist/reporter Kyle Whitmire promoting a G.A.S.P. event during the pendency of a criminal trial he covered that involved environmental adversaries of G.A.S.P. This post was quickly deleted by G.A.S.P, but not before glaring Whitmire's conflict of interest had been revealed.


© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.