State and Local Governments Are Not More Trustworthy, Volume the Infinity


(Permanent Musical Accompaniment To This Post)

Being our semi-regular weekly survey of what’s goin’ down in the several states where, as you know, the real work of governmentin’ gets done, and where time is an ocean but it ends at the shore.

Today we have a Very Special Holiday Edition of our semi-regular weekly survey. We find ourselves covering only one story, and that’s one in Alabama where, thanks to the indomitable folks at, we find a pretty spectacular political corruption trial unfolding. Three men are charged with allegedly bribing a former state representative named Oliver Robinson, who already has admitted to taking the bribe and copped a plea deal. Two of the men, Joel Gilbert and Steve McKinney, are lawyers. The third defendant is David Roberson, the vice president of the Drummond Company. (Drummond is a coal company, so you can probably guess where this is headed.) The facts of the case are these.

In the city of Tarrant, and in the Inglenook neighborhood of north Birmingham, in what became known as “Toxic City” because of the longterm effects of the steel production that made Birmingham into the “Pittsburgh of the South,” some residents got up in arms about the toxic waste in which they were living. Some of that waste came from the Drummond Company’s coke plant. The EPA got called in and declared the neighborhood a SuperFund site. That’s where the mischief began.

The gist of the charges is that the two lawyers and Roberson allegedly bribed Robinson through gifts to the latter’s charitable foundation in order to impede, obstruct, and otherwise vaporize a move to widen the SuperFund site. (Robinson represented the afflicted area in the state legislature.) Robinson admitted to all the charges, and he took the stand to testify against his former benefactors this week. The machinations alleged by Robinson are pretty stunning. From

They allegedly wanted Robinson to help torpedo a friend of his who was arrayed against their interests, and the interests of his constituency? This is some serious Gilded Age operating going on here.

And Balch and Bingham is the kind of law firm with which state politicians are more than usually familiar. There’s one or two in every state. They are octopi, with tentacles reaching into politics and business and tangling the two up until they are not distinguishable from one another; as Curtis Wilkie demonstrates in his excellent book, The Fall of the House of Zeus, the collapse of mega-lawyer Dickie Scruggs’s career sent tremors through every corner of that state’s establishment. Balch and Bingham is like that in Alabama.

Kyle Whitmire of has dogged the ramifications of the Robinson trial through every corner of the Alabama elite, and up the food chain to some interesting places.

(Big Luther, you may recall, was appointed to replace Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III in the U.S. Senate by corrupt former Alabama governor Robert Bentley. He then lost a Republican primary to Roy Moore, the Gadsden Mall Creeper. This paved the way for Democratic candidate Doug Jones to win the seat last fall.)

Further, Whitmire points out, the trial should serve as a signifying event to the state’s other oligarchs.

Only the venue for this kind of back-scratching corruption changes. This is why we have run this feature ever since the shebeen opened in 2011. The notion that state and local government can be trusted more than the federal government, because it is “closer to the people” and, thus, more likely to have their general interest at heart, while a staple of conservative politics, is known to be a wagonload of manure by any reporter who’s spent 20 minutes in a state capitol.

Remember, at the heart of what’s going on in Alabama is that people have been living on land that was poisoned because the people who poisoned it didn’t care if the people in the neighborhood sickened and died. ‘Twas ever thus.

This is your democracy, America. Cherish it.