Corruption trial of Birmingham mayor begins
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Mayor Larry Langford, who could be tossed out of office and go to prison if convicted of federal bribery charges, recently offered some advice to a new Birmingham City Council member.
“The illusion of power is the most dangerous drug on the planet,” Langford said. “A little bit of power — nothing intoxicates like it.”
Last week’s comment may sound a lot like the government’s opening argument against Langford, 61, the most recent in a long line of prominent names in the state Democratic Party to face corruption charges. Jury selection begins Monday.
Prosecutors claim a greedy, power-drunk Langford accepted bribes totaling some $235,000 — a chunk of it for upscale clothes and jewelry — while serving as president of the Jefferson County Commission before he was elected mayor. In exchange, they say, Langford steered $7.1 million in bond business to a political crony’s investment banking firm.
Those bond deals and others turned sour during the credit crunch and brought on a financial crisis that has pushed Alabama’s most populous county to the brink of filing what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The current commissioners have repeatedly extended credit agreements as they struggle to pay back $3.9 billion.
Charged with multiple felony counts of bribery, conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and tax violations, Langford automatically would be removed from office if convicted of even one count.
Defense attorney Michael Rasmussen laughed at the possibility of a guilty plea, saying Langford “maintains he is innocent and expects to get a fair trial.”
The government’s key witnesses will likely be two former Democratic Party leaders indicted with Langford last year.
Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount, a former Alabama Democratic Party chairman, pleaded guilty in August to paying bribes to Langford, who is accused of accepting gifts including a Rolex watch, cash and loan payoffs at luxury clothing stores.
Lobbyist Al LaPierre, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party, pleaded guilty to being a middleman in the scheme.
Langford, also a Democrat, has argued that what the government calls bribes really were gifts between old friends. He says the charges were brought by a Republican prosecutor as part of a GOP plan to target him and other Alabama Democrats.
His argument is similar to that of former Gov. Don Siegelman, another Democrat convicted of bribery and other federal corruption charges in 2006.
A widespread probe of financial wrongdoing in the state’s two-year college system also led to the downfall of its chancellor, Roy Johnson. He was once a powerful Democrat in the Alabama House who admitted getting some $1 million in kickbacks for himself, family and friends. He now awaits sentencing.
The executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party, Jim Spearman, agrees that Republican prosecutors seem to go after Democrats with special zest. But Blount and LaPierre haven’t been associated with the party for years, he said.
“Democrat or Republican, I don’t think anyone has a lock on ethics. You see all degrees of problems on all sides, and we need to clean it up,” Spearman said.
Nearly two dozen people already have been convicted or pleaded guilty in an investigation of Jefferson County’s tangled finances, including four other commissioners.
The trial, expected to last about two weeks, will be held 55 miles west of Birmingham in Tuscaloosa because of pretrial publicity.
Langford served as president of the county commission from 2002 through 2006, giving up his seat to run for mayor in 2007. The former television news reporter and beer company promoter, with his fashionable clothes and wide smile, won in a landslide.
He has launched numerous projects to pave streets and clean up neighborhoods during 22 months as mayor, but he is also known for seemingly Quixotic, off-the-wall ideas, including a bid to lure the Olympics to Birmingham in 2020. Critics often call Langford “Mayor LaLa.”
When he was commission president, the county made a series of risky financial deals known as bond swaps with Blount’s firm, Blount Parrish and Co. Inc. Blount said in his plea agreement that he bribed Langford to make the deals, which brought $7.1 million to Blount’s company.
Blount also admitted bribing another former commissioner, Mary Buckelew, with luxury gifts. Buckelew, a Republican, also pleaded guilty to lying to grand jurors and is expected to testify against Langford.
A former judge not involved in the case said Langford must attack the credibility of witnesses, including Blount and LaPierre, both of whom could receive lighter sentences for their cooperation.
“Everybody has a motive if you’re Langford, has a reason, not to tell the truth,” said former U.S. Magistrate Judge John Carroll, now dean of the law school at Samford University in suburban Birmingham.