For those of you not keeping up with current events (and judging from the number of people who went to county satellite courthouses to get your tags renewed this week, that means a lot of you), LaPierre has been a co-defendant in Birmingham’s most anticipated public corruption trial. Federal prosecutors accused him of acting as a sophisticated bag-man in a bribery scheme between one-time county commission president and now-Mayor Larry Langford and investment banker Bill Blount. When Langford needed money, LaPierre would make the arrangements with Blount to pay. And when Blount needed bond business, Langford would oblige.
Forget the complicated interest-rate swaps and other derivatives that have contributed to Jefferson County’s demise. “The averments of the indictment do not charge a complex financial fraud nor require protracted review of a large cache of business records to prove or disprove a sophisticated fraudulent accounting scheme,” U.S. District Judge Coogler wrote in the order denying the defense another extension. “No expert witnesses are required to explain arcane financial transactions. This is simply a bribery case.”
LaPierre pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of tax evasion. Prosecutors will ask for no more than four years in prison and LaPierre will have to pay $371,932 in restitution. In exchange, LaPierre will testify against his co-defendants, and the plea agreement outlined some of that testimony.
Only two new nuggets of information emerged from the plea deal. The first is that Blount and LaPierre gave Langford $3,500 so he could go on a trip to Mississippi with John Katopodis. As you’ll remember (unless you were standing in line at the courthouse), Katopodis was found guilty this June of using his publicly funded charity to finance his gambling habits. Langford’s wife, Melva, testified in that trial that she and her husband accompanied Katopodis on his jaunts to New Orleans and Mississippi casinos.
The second piece of information is more significant, though. According to the plea deal, Langford, Blount and LaPierre forged documents to cover their tracks.
In June 2007, Langford told the Securities and Exchange Commission that the money he received was loaned to him. When SEC investigators asked Langford if he had any documentation to support that argument, Langford told him he didn’t know.
“After reviewing Larry P. Langford’s false testimony, Langford, William B. Blount, and defendant Albert W. LaPierre agreed to further that false account of their illegal transactions by creating false promissory notes to make it appear as if the transactions were loans and not bribes,” the agreement says. “William B. Blount created the false promissory notes and then met with Larry P. Langford and defendant Albert W. LaPierre to sign the false promissory notes and get their story straight.”
Those documents were the linchpin for the defense’s argument that these payments were loans, not bribes. Langford’s attorney, Tom Baddley, said last week that the documents still show an intent by Langford to pay back the money, no matter when they were signed.
LaPierre is the second witness to plead guilty who can offer an inside account on the bond transactions that helped bring the county to its knees. Last year, former Commissioner Mary Buckelew pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. She will testify that Blount tried to influence her with expensive gifts, much as he did Langford.
With less than a month before the trial begins, pressure is building on the remaining two defendants. Each must decide whether to fight the feds or cut a deal. With the relatively small fish LaPierre receiving up to four years in prison, it’s left to wonder what kind of deal the other two can strike. If Blount’s claim to innocence outlives this paper on the newstands, I’ll be surprised. It’s not hard to imagine what it might be like if Blount took the witness stand.
Q: “And what do you do for a living Mr. Blount?”
Q: “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite get that.”
A: “I said I’m an investment banker.”
Just like those guys you see on TV.
Jaded friends have pointed to the accounting fraud trial of Richard Scrushy as evidence of what a Birmingham jury can do for a defendant, to which I’ve pointed to what the government can still do for someone like Scrushy, who’s sitting today in a Beaumont, Texas, federal prison. He’s still in jail, civil plaintiffs are seizing his assets and the street Langford named after him in Fairfield has been changed back to Lloyd Nolan Parkway.
What’s more, the timing of Jefferson County’s complete financial implosion couldn’t be worse for the defendants. At the courthouse this week, renewing a driver’s license or getting new car tags was a walk in the park — literally, the line into the courthouse stretched to the fountain in Linn Park.
Against this backdrop, Langford has zigzagged from one public relations event to the next. While running for mayor, Langford blasted his predecessor, Bernard Kincaid, for having so many ceremonial groundbreakings, but lately Langford has been digging enough holes in the ground to make gophers nervous.
To some extent, that’s the same Langford I’ve known for 10 years — always in search of a new, bigger project. But last month, Langford unfurled a PR campaign of such political narcissism that is makes the Daleys of Chicago seem downright bashful in comparison.
Around City Hall, the mayor’s office has hung clocks on the walls. The face of the clocks features Langford’s achievements in office in place of numbers. In the middle, it reads, “ALL ON MY WATCH.”
To which I’m left to wonder, which watch? The $12,015 Tourneau Blount bought him New York, or the $11,750 Rolex Blount bought him from Bromberg’s in Birmingham?
But Langford isn’t the only one keeping track of time. Last week, after Judge Coogler ordered a defendant in an unrelated case to report to the U.S. Marshals on Aug. 31. If he needed more time, Coogler told him to come see him at the courthouse.
“I suspect I’ll be here that day,” Coogler said.
LaPierre is gone. Blount and Langford have to decide whether they’ll follow him or fight. Every clock is ticking, even the luxury watches now in evidence.
Time is running out.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org