Birmingham News: Larry Langford: 'Calm inside' as verdicts halt career
TUSCALOOSA -- Larry Langford was found guilty Wednesday on all federal criminal counts against him, abruptly halting the 32-year career of a Jefferson County political fixture who had been Birmingham's mayor for just under two years.
The jury of nine women and three men found Langford guilty on all 60 bribery-related counts after less than two hours of deliberation in U.S. District Court in Tuscaloosa. The trial, which lasted eight days, was moved from Birmingham at Langford's request because of what he called adverse pretrial publicity.
Langford, who plans to appeal the verdict stemming from his conduct as president of the Jefferson County Commission, remains free awaiting sentencing. That is expected to occur within 120 days. Langford showed no reaction as a court clerk read a guilty verdict for each count.
"I am remarkably calm inside," Langford said outside the courtroom, minutes after the verdict was handed down. "If you are looking for someone with his head down and crying, you are not going to get it here."
It is a stunning reversal for the former award-winning television journalist, the driving force behind VisionLand amusement park and the former mayor of Fairfield. Langford faces decades in prison if sentenced to the maximum term available under Justice Department guidelines.
Langford's conviction triggers a change in the leadership of Birmingham. Under the Mayor-Council Act, City Council President Carole Smitherman immediately became interim mayor once the guilty verdict was read.
At trial, the heart of the government's case was the testimony of Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount and lobbyist Al LaPierre. Both pleaded guilty in the case and testified that Langford received bribes from them that amounted to $236,000 in money, clothes and jewelry.
In return, jurors heard, Langford ensured that Blount's investment bank, Blount Parrish & Co., was included in Jefferson County bond deals and interest-rate swaps that reaped the firm $7.1 million.
"I wanted to keep the mayor happy, help him avoid political scandal and make certain Blount Parrish was involved in as many bonds, swaps and other transactions as it possibly could," Blount testified.
Prosecutors were elated Wednesday.
"It is a sad day for the people of Jefferson County because there was found to be another corrupt politician," said Assistant U.S. Attorney George Martin, who led the prosecution. "But it is a good day for the people of Jefferson County because a jury has convicted another corrupt politician."
The graft, prosecutors said, included more than $100,000 in suits, shoes and shirts, and outright cash gifts in about the same amount. About $55,000 in clothes came from upscale Birmingham retailer Remon's, The Gentleman's Clothier, and tens of thousands more from luxury New York shops.
The New York purchases, jurors heard, happened courtesy of Blount during official trips he and Langford made there to meet with investment banks and other finance professionals involved in structuring and selling Jefferson County bonds and swaps.
The county's debt, including sewer, school and other bonds, rose by about $1 billion under Langford, and has now swelled to about $5 billion. The county is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of bonds and swaps sold to investors that raised money for repairing and expanding a dilapidated sewer system.
Easily won office
Langford, who didn't testify during the trial, was elected mayor of Birmingham in 2007. He won office in a field of 10 without a runoff, and vowed to see a central entertainment district and domed sports and convention center built within city limits.
He was indicted last year following a long-running federal investigation of the county's financial deals under his tenure.
The jury got the case about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, after closing arguments and the judge's instruction about how law related to the case should be applied. At 4:20 p.m., while the mayor was smoking cigarettes and chatting outside the courthouse, he and the lawyers in the case were told a verdict was ready.
After the verdict was read, the jury was sent out of the courtroom and Langford was told to approach the central podium to officially hear the verdict from U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler. Langford, dressed in one of his stylish dark business suits, walked to the microphone with neither hitch of stride nor hint of emotion.
After hearing the verdict, he returned to his seat. His wife, present throughout the trial, had briefly left the courtroom during the interval.
"Where's Melva?" Langford asked a supporter when he returned from the podium. "Go find her and make sure she is all right."
Outside the courthouse, Langford faced a sea of cameras and questioners with his wife standing next to him.
"He is not guilty," Melva Langford said. "Only in Alabama can a black man not get a fair trial. The Justice Department has been conspiring and working hard to get my husband."
The jury had to weigh testimony it heard about two versions of the same man. Government prosecutors told the jury Langford was a corrupt politician who conspired with Blount and LaPierre to take bribes for county business.
"This case is about a wheeling and dealing politician who violated the public trust for money, luxury clothing and jewelry," Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamarra Matthews Johnson said during closing arguments Wednesday.
Langford's attorneys said he was a dedicated public servant who tried to help residents by resisting higher sewer rates that were escalating along with the system's repair and debt-service costs. Though flawed by an uncontrollable attraction to fine clothes and jewelry, he was manipulated by Blount and LaPierre, Langford's lawyers said.
"Larry Langford came from Loveman Village," Glennon Threatt, one of Langford's two attorneys, said during closing arguments. "Perhaps something from his childhood led him to overvalue the collection of material objects."
Langford is the fifth former Jefferson County commissioner to face public corruption charges for illicit activities while in office. Chris McNair also has been convicted but has not yet been sent to prison, while Mary Buckelew pleaded guilty and Jeff Germany was convicted of using social service agencies to gain access to thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for personal gain. Gary White awaits retrial after his January 2008 conviction was overturned.
'A diverse jury'
Prosecutors scoffed at the notion the charges and Wednesday's verdict were racially or politically motivated, citing a jury made up of three blacks and nine whites. "Not true," Matthews Johnson said. "It was a diverse jury."
Martin, the lead prosecutor, said "the entire course of conduct" convicted Langford. "It was the clothes, the money, the repeated purchases" paid for by Blount, he said.
Earlier in the courtroom, after hearing the verdict from Coogler, Langford told the judge he had already surrendered his passport and would abide by travel and other restrictions that he had agreed to after his brief arrest in December 2008. He said he had no firearms, having gotten rid of a collection he once owned.
Langford, during a wide-ranging press conference outside the courthouse following the verdict, said: "At the end of the day, I shot my best shot, but the jury ruled the way that they did."