When Luther Strange summoned Robert Tambling to his executive conference room, Tambling said in sworn testimony this week that he didn't know why the Alabama attorney general wanted him there.
In October 2014, Tambling was an assistant Attorney General in the office's environmental division. At times, he was the only lawyer in the environmental division, which was supposed to oversee cases including the BP oil spill.When Tambling arrived at the meeting, in the room were Strange, Chief Deputy Attorney General Kevin Turner, and two other men -- Balch & Bingham partner Joel Gilbert and Drummond Co. vice president David Roberson.
Roberson and Gilbert had come to the Attorney General's office with a request.
The men wanted Strange to push back against the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to clean up polluted neighborhoods in north Birmingham -- a plan that could have put polluters, including Drummond Co., on the hook for the cleanup costs.
Federal prosecutors have accused Roberson and Gilbert of bribing former Alabama lawmaker Oliver Robinson to fight the EPA, but this trial has exposed much more. It has shown how our government works and who it works for, and how Gilbert turned every level of government -- from neighborhood leaders to United States senators -- into a Balch & Bingham puppet show.
From the fall of 2014 through the spring of 2017, the EPA received letters and resolutions supporting Drummond's position from Sen. Jeff Sessions, Gov. Robert Bentley, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Jefferson County Commission, and the Alabama Legislature, among others.
Emails and other records introduced in court show Gilbert wrote or edited every one of them.And in October 2014, Gilbert wanted Strange to send one, too.
Last year, I began to suspect that every letter or resolution sent to the EPA had been written by Gilbert. Thanks to the feds, we had proof that Gilbert wrote Robinson's letter and a joint resolution passed by the Alabama Legislature.
I wondered, could that have been the case for Strange, too?
I submitted a records request to the Alabama Attorney General's office under Alabama's open records law. I asked for all correspondence between that office and Balch & Bingham.
Eventually, the Attorney General's office returned some documents. However, none of those documents showed Gilbert had written the letters Strange sent to the EPA.
The proof I was looking for wasn't there.
But the Attorney General's office had made a mistake. At the bottom of Strange's first letter to the EPA was a series of digits -- document tracking numbers Balch & Bingham used internally to track their work product.
It was clear the Attorney General's office was hiding something.
I sent a second records request. I didn't hide any cards. I told them why I thought their first response was incomplete and I asked them to send me the rest of the documents I requested."After a thorough follow up review of our records, we have determined that this office is not in possession of the correspondence to which you refer," Attorney General Steve Marshall's spokesman, Mike Lewis, wrote.
As it would turn out, that was a lie.
On the witness stand in federal court this week, Tambling was a reluctant witness. Frequently, he retreated to that old political fallout shelter: "I can't remember."
But federal prosecutors had the documents to remind him -- the very documents I had requested from the AG's office. The documents that Lewis said didn't exist.
Those documents -- emails and attachments exchanged between Tambling and Gilbert -- show that Gilbert wrote letters to the EPA, Tambling had those letters put on the Attorney General's letterhead, and Strange signed them as his own work.
After those documents became public in court this week, I asked the Attorney General's office to explain itself.
"It is long-standing policy of the Office of the Attorney General that draft documents and emails on possible actions to be taken by a state agency are not subject to disclosure under the Open Records Law," Assistant Attorney General Ward Beason wrote.
This "long-standing policy" is not supported by the law. There is no statutory exemption for these documents, only Attorney General opinions -- an exemption the AG's office has invented out of thin air.And that's not what they said either of the two times I requested these documents before, either.
I asked Lewis to explain his prior denials that the AG's office had any more documents -- why I shouldn't tell you here that what he said before was a lie.
He didn't respond.
Open records and open meetings laws are the bedrock of government transparency and the only tool the public has to hold its public officials accountable.
The Attorney General's office wants to take those tools out of my hands and yours.
Now it's becoming clear why. Those "draft documents" Beason wants to keep secret show us how our government really works and who it works for.
And it isn't us.These documents, in particular, reveal something else, too.
I've argued before that Gilbert and Roberson have exposure under state ethics laws. As registered lobbyists, they are prohibited from giving things of value, including a job, to public officials.
But the Alabama Attorney General's office, first under Strange and now under Bentley-appointee Steve Marshall, has not pursued that case.
Now it seems clear why.
Pursuing a state case against these defendants would mean having to explain to a jury why the AG's office was working with these same guys at the same time.It would mean explaining how, four days after Gilbert sent that letter for Strange to sign, Strange deposited a $25,000 campaign donation from Drummond Co.
It would mean explaining why, a month after Strange sent a second letter to the EPA, he received another $25,000 campaign donation from Drummond -- even though the election was over and he didn't need the money to pay off campaign debt.
It would mean explaining why the former Alabama Attorney General shouldn't himself be a defendant.
Testimony continues, and the trial is expected to last three to six weeks. To keep up on Twitter, follow @WarOnDumb.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group.
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