Donald V. Watkins
Anatomy of a Southern Company Bribery Scheme
By: Donald V. Watkins
March 12, 2023
EXCLUSIVE BREAKING NEWS---
As part of their sweeping racketeering scheme, the Southern Company and its affiliates used a variety of bribery and money laundering schemes to capture and control utility regulators, state and federal lawmakers, and a host of other public officials.
One of these schemes involved the bribery of former Alabama state Representative Oliver Robinson in 2015 and 2016. On September 7, 2017, Robinson pled guilty to receiving $360,000 in bribes.
This particular bribery scheme is embedded in an email exchange between Steve McKinney, a former partner at Balch & Bingham, LLP, in Birmingham, and Matthew Bowden, Alabama Power’s then-general counsel on May 17-18, 2015.
The entity that was established in 2015 to fund the bribery of Oliver Robinson was called the "Alliance for Jobs and the Economy" (AJE). It was an Alabama Power Company-inspired creation.
McKinney explained to Bowden that AJE was the entity that former Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite "preferred" to deal with the company's North Birmingham Superfund cleanup problem in 2015.
In his March 18, 2015 email, McKinney told Bowden that AJE is the “special purpose 501-c-6 entity Mark [Crosswhite] preferred over having BBA [Birmingham Business Alliance] respond to EPA’s expanded Superfund theories and GASP’s Toxic City campaign. The Alliance for Jobs and the Economy.”
In other words, bribing Oliver Robinson, who is black and who was willing to sell out the black residents of North Birmingham, was Alabama Power's preferred solution for defeating an initiative by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate this black neighborhood as a Superfund clean-up site.
The Superfund designation would have forced the industrial polluters who poisoned the air, ground, and water in this poor black neighborhood to clean it up at their corporate expense. The polluters were longtime networking partners and political allies of Alabama Power Company.
Matthew Bowden’s email address at the time was MWBOWDEN@southernco.com. The Southern Company headquarters in Atlanta monitored the email traffic of its affiliates, especially emails dealing with environmental matters.
Bowden died unexpectedly on October 11, 2017, following his hospitalization for a minor aliment.
Mike Godfrey, Alabama Power’s general manager for environmental affairs, was copied on McKinney's March 17 and 18, 2015 emails. He, too, had a Southern Company email address.
McKinny's reference to "GASP" is an acronym for “Great-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution.” This organization fought hard and smart against Alabama Power's unrelenting and toxic air pollution in the state.
On April 6, 2017, handwritten notes made by the Southern Company's retained crisis management firm, Matrix, LLC, and its owner, Joe Perkins, designated GASP as one of four “natural enemies” of the Southern Company and Alabama Power.
The other designated “natural enemies" of these publicly traded utility companies are: (a) the American Association of Retired Persons, (b) former Mobile (Alabama) Press Register reporter Eddie Curran, a critic of Alabama Power, and (c) Debbie Dooley, a well-known Buford, Georgia advocate for green energy and energy choice.
Contributors to the Oliver Robinson Bribery Fund
Alabama Power contributed $30,000 of the $360,000 in cash that was used to bribe Oliver Robinson. It also paid Balch & Bingham, the Southern Company's principal law firm, to set up the bribery fund.
McKinney’s March 17, 2015, email named eight "core group" companies that would contribute the money needed to bribe Oliver Robinson and denoted the status of their contributions. They were:
1. Drummond Company.... Committed
2. Thompson Tractor ......... Committed
3. ACIPCO........................... Committed
4. U.S. Steel......................... Firmly expected
5. Alabama Power............... Firmly expected
6. Nucor Steel..................... Expected
7. Protective Life Corp....... Firmly expected
8. Regions Bank.................. Expected
In March of 2015, Protective Life Corporation was led by John D. Johns, who was also elected to the Southern Company's board of directors that year. Johns still serves as a Southern Company board member.
Several Balch & Bingham attorneys also contributed money to the AJE fund. The law firm reportedly recaptured this money when Alabama Power paid Balch & Bingham’s inflated invoices.
Joe Perkins' April 6, 2017, handwritten notes highlighted a lot of the fraud schemes within the Southern Company, including inflated law firm payments (for money laundering purposes), inappropriate corporate airplane usage (to compromise and corrupt politicians), personnel services (to bilk billions of dollars out of affiliates), shoddy engineering work on the Kemper, Mississippi and Vogtle construction projects (that resulted in $25 billion in cost overruns for these two projects, alone), and questionable accounting practices (across-the-board).
Was the North Birmingham Bribery Investigation and Related Trial "Fixed"?
In 2018, Judge Abdul K. Kallon presided over the North Birmingham Bribery Trial in which Balch & Bingham law partner Joel I. Gilbert and Drummond Company executive David Roberson were charged with bribing Oliver Robinson.
Steve McKinney was indicted in the case, but criminal charges against him were dismissed by Judge Kallon during the trial after an FBI agent testified she may have misled the grand jury by implying that McKinney personally met with Oliver Robinson. Such an in-person meeting never happened.
As mentioned earlier, Oliver Robinson pled guilty early in the case and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors to develop evidence against other co-conspirators.
The criminal investigation in this case was supervised by Jay Town, then-U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, and Town's handpicked First Assistant U.S. Attorney, Lloyd Peeples. Both men are known “hustlers” who have checkered backgrounds.
Before Town gave him the First Assistant's job, Lloyd Peeples was a failed "Your Pie" pizza restaurant franchisee/operator in Homewood, Alabama. Peeples' restaurant operated for only 11 months before he closed its doors due to underperforming pizza sales.
During the trial of Joel I. Gilbert and David Roberson, Judge Kallon reportedly instructed defense counsel to avoid any mention of Alabama Power Company and its role in the bribery scheme without first clearing it with Alabama Power's criminal attorney, who monitored the trial daily for his client. This judicial instruction was bizarre, particularly in light of the fact that Alabama Power provided $30,000 of the $360,000 that was used to bribe Oliver Robinson.
Jay Town refused to charge Alabama Power or any of its top executives as co-conspirators in the case, despite substantial evidence that established their willingness to participate in the bribery and money laundering scheme.
Drummond's general counsel, Blake Andrews, and at least 21 Balch & Bingham attorneys played a key role in the bribery scheme. Yet, Jay Town refused to charge these individuals as co-conspirators in the case.
Balch & Bingham is Alabama Power's main law firm. At one time, Mark Crosswhite was a partner in Balch & Bingham.
Jay Town actively steered the investigation away from Alabama Power, Crosswhite, and the other entities listed in McKinney’s March 17, 2015 email.
On June 5, 2020, Balch & Bingham began its representation of Southern Nuclear Operating Company in regulatory proceedings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The law firm is tasked with the job of getting Units 3 and 4 at the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Waynesboro, Georgia commissioned and operational from a regulatory compliance standpoint.
At no time since the Southern Company received its NRC license for Units 3 and 4 at Vogtle on February 10, 2012, has the company or any affiliate entity come clean with the NRC about the racketeering enterprise and accounting fraud schemes they have run for over a decade.
The reasons for concealing this criminal activity from the NRC is simple. The licenses for Units 3 and 4 contain this NRC agency finding: "The issuance of this license will not be inimical to the common defense and security or to the health and safety of the public." The NRC would likely rescind its license for Vogtle if the Commission subsequently determined that the Southern Company operated a racketeering enterprise and various accounting fraud schemes.
This is especially true in light of the fact that the Southern Company's accounting fraud schemes emanated, in large part, from the $21 billion in cost overruns associated with the construction of Vogtle Units 3 and 4.
Drummond is Alabama Power's longtime coal supplier. Evidence in the Gilbert and Roberson bribery case showed that Drummond CEO Mike Tracy personally approved payments to two ethically-conflicted consultants who lobbied the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to officially oppose the EPA cleanup initiative in North Birmingham. Yet, Jay Town refused to charge Drummond Company or Mike Tracy as co-conspirators in the case.
In 2018, Jay Town met with Mark Crosswhite at an obscure lounge where the two men chugged down cocktails amid mounting evidence that some of the companies listed on McKinney’s March 17, 2015 email, as well as their top executives, knowingly and willingly participated in the scheme to bribe Oliver Robinson.
After his meeting with Crosswhite, Jay Town decided to (a) portray Roberson and Gilbert as "lone wolves" in the bribery scheme, and (b) close the investigation, over the objections of career law enforcement officials.
Abrupt Resignations, an Early Retirement, and a Suicide
After a surprise photograph surfaced in 2020 of Jay Town having cocktails with Mark Crosswhite in a festive celebration of Town's agreement to shield Alabama Power, Crosswhite, Drummond, Mike Tracy, Balch & Bingham, Blake Andrews, and the other corporate contributors on McKinney’s list from criminal charges in the case, Town abruptly resigned as U.S. Attorney.
Then-U.S. Senator Richard Shelby arranged a high paying general counsel's job for Town with Huntsville-based defense contractor Gray Analytics. Shelby was the longtime beneficiary of major campaign contributions from political action committees affiliated with the companies on McKinney’s list. Shelby is also the "hunting buddy" of Joe Perkins and Scott Coogler, the Chief U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Alabama.
Mike Tracy took a sudden and unexpected early "retirement" from the Drummond Company, effective on October 31, 2019.
In April 2022, Balch & Bingham attorney William Dice Lineberry committed suicide. Lineberry helped set up the money laundering entity (AJE) that was used to: (a) receive corporate donations from Alabama Power and other willing participants in the bribery scheme and (b) funnel over $360,000 in bribery money to Oliver Robinson.
On April 7, 2022, two assistant U.S. Attorneys with reported connections to the Office's investigation of the North Birmingham Bribery Scheme reportedly resigned.
Judge Adbul Kallon resigned his lifetime federal judgeship on August 31, 2022, and moved to Seattle, Washington to practice law at the Perkins Cole law firm. His resignation was sudden and unexpected.
On October 18, 2022, former Balch & Bingham partner Chase T. Espy pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. On March 8, 2023, Espy was sentenced to 8 years in prison.
Mark Crosswhite was ousted as CEO of Alabama Power on November 21, 2022, effective on December 31, 2022. During a February 16, 2023 earnings call, Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning artfully misled Wall Street analysts about the true reason for Crosswhite's ouster from the company.
As of March 11, 2023, Jay Town is serving as a legal commentator for the Alabama Media Group. This local media organization, which publishes the Huntsville Times, Birmingham News, and Mobile Press Register online, receives laundered money from an Alabama Power Company-funded entity in exchange for favorable media coverage and/or the suppression of negative news about the Southern Company and its affiliates. This cozy, but publicly undisclosed financial arrangement, has helped the Southern Company’s racketeering enterprise and accounting fraud schemes to flourish in Alabama (and beyond).
Meanwhile, Southern Company executives privately believe they have successfully hoodwinked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and his handpicked Criminal Division Chief, Kenneth Polite, into signing off on a non-prosecution agreement for the Southern Company and its affiliates without the Department of Justice's awareness of the massive multi-year accounting fraud schemes referenced in Perkins' April 6, 2017 notes.
[Author's Note: My news media group at www.donaldwatkins.com has gained access to a treasure trove of documents and photographs that establish and detail the nature and scope of the Southern Company's racketeering enterprise and accounting fraud schemes. These documents and photos will be published in connection with upcoming articles, to the extent necessary.]