Two years ago, those were Langford’s unanswered questions.
Last Wednesday, we got the answers, and I thought of that large pounding drum as the court clerk read each of the verdicts for the 60 federal charges against Langford. For conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering and tax evasion — one after another — guilty, guilty, guilty ...
Langford was a criminal who used his office to enrich himself and betray his constituents. As of last week, that is no longer a matter of opinion shared only by the former mayor’s critics. It is a matter of fact established by a court of law. He is a felon. While he served as president of the Jefferson County Commission, he directed more than $7 million of needless fees for bond work to his long-time friend, Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount. He conspired with Blount and others to hide these fees from the public and his fellow commissioners. In exchange, Blount and lobbyist Al LaPierre gave Langford more than $235,000 in cash, clothes and jewelry. But most of Langford’s benefit came in the form of clothes. While on trips to New York, supposedly to meet with bond insurers and ratings agencies, Langford and Blount went shopping at upscale boutiques such as Oxxford Clothes and Salvatore Ferragamo.
U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler sent the case to the jury at about 2:30 in the afternoon. By 4:30, everyone was returning to the courtroom for the verdict. When you consider that the jury took a 15-minute smoke break before starting deliberations, and tack on another five to 10 minutes for getting situated and electing a foreman, the jury spent at most an hour-and-a-half coming to its conclusion.
Since the verdict, many have pointed to that expediency as evidence of jurors’ negligence. One lawyer I talked to wondered whether the jury even took the time to read the indictment. With 60 counts, this looked like a complicated case, but as defense lawyer Mike Rasmussen said in his closing argument, this trial wasn’t about what happened; it was about why it happened. The defense never really contested the circumstantial evidence. Instead, Langford’s lawyers questioned only the mayor’s understanding of the scheme. They left the jury with only one question to answer: Did Langford understand he was taking bribes? Once they had answered that question, the rest of the so-called “overt acts” in the indictment fell into place.
In many ways, the defense’s closing arguments were as damning as the prosecution’s case. Throughout the trial, the defense team argued that Langford had an addiction to shopping that bordered on a mental problem. Langford liked to go shopping for the thrill of the experience, they said. When he was done, he often lost interest in the things he’d bought. Clothes would hang in his closet with the tags still on. He’d re-gift the things Blount and LaPierre bought for him to anyone who admired them. Langford’s spending problems were so bad that he had to hide them from his own wife, Rasmussen said. To do this, Langford opened a private account at Compass bank and had the statements sent to his office. This was the account he used to accept large payments from LaPierre and Blount. This was the account he used to pay off his debts at department stores and men’s clothing boutiques.
LaPierre told the FBI that Langford’s shopping habits were akin to heroin addiction. The defense argued that LaPierre and Blount exploited that weakness to dupe Langford into participating in their scheme. The trouble for the defense was that its argument made no sense when taken apart. The defense needed an alternative narrative, but the best they could offer was that Blount and LaPierre conspired to bribe Langford without him knowing that we was being bribed? That’s not a defense. It’s a Monty Python sketch. The conspiracy and the scheme wouldn’t work unless Langford knew his role in it.
In contrast, the prosecution’s narrative left the defense in tatters. Assistant United States Attorney Tamarrah Johnson mocked Rasmussen’s argument. This is a story about one grown man asking another grown man to take him shopping for clothes and jewelry, she said. Langford would pick out clothes, put them on the table and never reach for his wallet. Instead, Blount paid for them.
“They weren’t dating. This wasn’t romance,” Johnson said. “This was business. This was a criminal enterprise.”
Assistant United States Attorney George Martin took Rasmussen’s argument about Langford’s secret bank account and turned it against the defendant. So far in the trial, the evidence had implied Langford kept the account secret from his wife. The defense’s closing argument confirmed it. Hiding something is evidence of guilt, Martin said.
“If a man will lie to his wife to cover up a little bit of spending, what lies will he tell in court when he is facing crimes?” Martin asked.
During opening arguments, Rasmussen had stacked seven file boxes in front of the jury to represent the $7 million Blount received in the scheme. Rasmussen then showed jurors a small box about large enough to hold a sleeve of business cards. That box represented Langford’s take. The defense used the proportion (or disproportion) between Langford’s $235,000 and Blount’s $7 million to argue there had been no agreement.
Concluding the prosecution’s case, Martin held another small box in front of the jury. It was about the same size as the box Rasmussen showed them the week before. He reminded the jury of Rasmussen’s boxes and Martin said he had known from the beginning of the trial what he would say to them in the end.
“Langford isn’t supposed to have a box — at all,” Martin said. “If he does, it’s dishonest.”
The prosecution’s argument prevailed. The defense stipulated to a forfeiture of $241,000. The judge said he would hold a sentencing hearing within 90 days.
On the sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse, Langford was unfazed and undaunted. There, he did what he had chosen not to do in court — he testified. It was quickly apparent why the defense had kept Langford silent during the trial.
“If I was guilty of what they said and Bill Blount made $7 million, you can bet your ass I would have had three and a half of it,” Langford said.
Langford said that the federal government had been antagonizing him since the early 1980s. Showing no remorse or contrition, Langford joked about the possible sentence he could face — a maximum of 805 years.
“That means if I live to be 80, I have to die and come back 10 more times,” he said. He turned to his defense lawyer, Glennon Threatt. “You going to hang around and defend me?” he asked.
Threatt smiled and said, “I’ll be there, mayor.”
Threatt still called Langford by his title — mayor — but that office wasn’t his anymore. Under the Mayor-Council Act, Langford ceased being mayor the moment of his conviction, and the title passed to City Council President Carole Smitherman. Langford offered his condolences to his successor.
The former mayor blamed his conviction on an angry world and a racist Justice Department — anyone but himself. At first, Langford was hesitant to play the race card, but his wife, Melva, led the way.
“Only in Alabama — a black man cannot yet be fair tried. That’s been for eons,” she said.
She accused the Justice Department of conspiring against her husband, and she invoked God to settle the score.
“God is in the picture,” she said. “And all those people that have done wrong, God will take care of that.”
Langford accused the Justice Department of striking as many black candidates from the jury as it could, but three still remained and they voted as quickly and adamantly as the white jurors. This verdict wasn’t a matter of race.
But it might have been a matter of class, in more than one respect. One juror wore his camouflage hunting jacket to court every day. How do you explain to someone like that why you need a $1,100 cashmere sweater? The prices and the extravagance of New York’s finest fashions on parade in an Alabama courtroom seemed grotesque. Who among us knew that Century 21 was an upscale department store in Manhattan? (I thought they just sold houses.)
Langford’s fashion choices might have been high-class, but his temperament was not. He lashed out at his critics and accepted no blame.
During the post-conviction press conference, one reporter asked Langford about the effect this might have on the 2020 Olympics, and the appropriateness of that question has been scrutinized ever since. Everyone knew what the NBC 13 reporter, Jon Paepcke, was talking about. Early in his tenure as mayor, Langford proposed bringing the 2020 Olympics to Birmingham. But when Paepcke asked about it last week, there was a silence. At first, even Langford wouldn’t respond to it, at least until he called Paepcke a snake. A reporter next to me muttered, “That’s a dumbass question.”
In some respect it was. It didn’t do much to move the interview forward. It seemed so abrupt and out of place. Some have likened it to kicking a man while he was down.
However, I’m not sure those are the real reasons everybody smarted at it. Intentionally or not, Paepcke’s question pulled back the curtain this city had hung to hide the absurdity of the last two years. When Langford proposed bringing the Olympics to Birmingham or when he proposed recreating Trafalgar Square here, a few radio talk show hosts blasted it as the joke it obviously was. However, the rest of the media were not so incredulous. Instead, editorial writers complimented Langford for having big ideas. Artists’ renderings were printed on the front pages. Business leaders went on television to credit Langford for thinking “outside of the box.”
(On the eve of Langford’s trial one real comedian, Robin Williams, recognized the Olympic bid as the joke it was. “Your mayor Larry Langford is trying to get the Olympics here?” he said in a performance at the BJCC. “So he’s going for 2020. He should be out of prison by then.”)
When Langford stood on stage at the Boutwell Auditorium to take the oath of office two years ago, there were a lot of executives standing there with him. UAB President Carol Garrison was there. Regions bank CEO Dowd Ritter stood with Langford, as did Protective Life CEO John Johns. Alabama Power CEO Charles McCrary, the heaviest of the heavies, declared that Langford’s election was turning a new page in Birmingham history.
The elites of Birmingham — be they in business, government or the media — have acted as passive accomplices to the greatest hoax ever perpetrated in this city. Langford’s so-called leadership has been one disaster after another. As mayor of suburban Fairfield, he drove that city into debt so deep it had to sell school property to climb out. When he built the taxpayer-funded theme park, VisionLand, he set in motion the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy in Alabama history. The vulnerable and risky debt structure he helped build while commission president has Jefferson County on the verge of being the largest Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. All these things were public knowledge when Langford ran for the Birmingham mayor’s office, but hardly anyone in this town attempted to stop him. While the evidence of Langford’s crimes trickled into the public domain, those who saw the mayor for who he really was did not call him out. Instead, they did what we in the South are wont to do: They sat on their hands, bit their tongues and waited for the Justice Department to do its work.
After the verdict, Birmingham News columnist John Archibald opined about Paepcke’s Olympics question: “What is this, The Daily Show? It was vile, pointless and inappropriate.”
It wasn’t the Daily Show, but maybe it should have been. A little more incredulity the last few years would have revealed the Langford administration for what it was: vile, pointless and inappropriate.
Still, after the conviction, the Langford apologies did not stop. In fact, they increased. Commentators took pains to complement Langford’s good qualities, while glossing over the bad. Birmingham, it seems, is the new Stockholm.
“He certainly is convicted of committing horrible crimes, but it’s not like he chopped up kids and buried them under his Fairfield house,” editorial writer Joey Kennedy wrote after the verdict. It was a notable observation, not for its sympathy for Langford, but rather the fact that it was the first time The Birmingham News had acknowledged that Langford never even moved to Birmingham.
The News was not alone in the apology parade, and within 24 hours, even the new mayor was marching in lockstep.
“Our mayor, Larry Langford, despite his faults, is a visionary, and I think he put first the well-being and the progress of the city and its people,” Interim Mayor Smitherman said in her first press conference. “While I have not always agreed with the implementation of his ideas, I have always admired his progressive approach in municipal government and his concern and love for the people of this city.”
Langford’s lawyers asked Judge Coogler to change the trial venue to Tuscaloosa because they feared their client could not get a fair trial in Birmingham. That now appears to have been a mistake. In less than two hours, the Tuscaloosa jury reached a conclusion that Birmingham has resisted for two years: Langford was a crook, a thief and a liar, and the only public office he deserved was a jail cell.
There is hope, still, that some of these officials might finally recognize the Langford administration for the hapless danger it was. After taking office, Smitherman ordered a review of the city’s coffers. Since then, reexamining Langford’s financial management has been like opening the lid on Dracula’s crypt.
Upon taking office, Smitherman ordered Finance Director Steve Sayler to produce a report of the city’s fiscal condition. What he produced is horrifying.
Almost all of the city’s revenue streams are down from the last two years, Sayler wrote in the report.
“Taking into account the static collection rates for the major revenue categories of the City of Birmingham compared to prior years, it appears at this time that the actual collections for fiscal year 2010 will be below budget by up to about $15 million if the local economy does not begin to improve before the end of the fiscal year,” Sayler wrote.
What’s more, Sayler said that the recession started later in Alabama and that it would probably last longer and be more severe than in the rest of the country. The economic recovery Birmingham needs to make up the revenue gap is not likely.
What’s worse, while the city is not meeting its revenue projections, the finance department kept nearly $20.8 million of necessary expenses out of the city’s budget. These off-book expenditures include inflexible and unavoidable costs such as equipment leases, phone bills and other utilities. Essential city services, including storm sewer maintenance and indigent legal defense, were excluded also.
In light of this, it seems the Finance Department intended to pay for these expenditures out of the general fund balance, the city’s savings. The city has a stated policy of keeping a fund balance equal to three months operating expenditures, roughly $100 million under the current budget. The city had already violated that policy by letting the fund balance drop to $88.9 million, but the hidden expenditures would have diminished it further.
In the budget it passed earlier this year, the city council reluctantly agreed to $12.7 million of expenditures out of those savings. With a $15 million shortfall in revenue, the $12.7 million of approved general fund spending and another $20.8 million of hidden costs, the City of Birmingham was on track for a Fiscal Year 2010 deficit of about $48 million. That would have depleted the city’s savings by more than half in just a single year.
The city ended the 2008 fiscal year with $117 million. Had the current financial conditions not been exposed, that reserve could have been depleted to $40 million over the course of two years.
Until Tuesday, all these facts were being concealed from the public and the city council. The finance director and the mayor’s office were telling the council the city had ended the 2009 fiscal year with a $13 million surplus. The council’s financial analyst and media reports exposed that lie, but the officials at City Hall continued the deception. If Birmingham city government were a publicly traded company, a lot of officials would be facing criminal charges right now. As it is, Smitherman says she is trying to determine if crimes were committed.
On Monday, Sayler resigned under pressure from Smitherman. His office was locked and city security escorted him from the building.
Smitherman has tried to put a good face on the city’s finances, and she maintains the city’s savings are strong. However, she dresses up the city’s savings by including two other funds — the Birmingham Fund and the debt reserve — with the fund balance when she describes the city’s savings.
Smitherman says that she does not want the public to equate what has happened at Birmingham with what happened at Jefferson County. It’s too late for that. Who steered Jefferson County into its disaster? Langford and Sayler, who served as finance director there, too. Who has been at Birmingham’s financial helm the last two years? Langford and Sayler.
Smitherman has said that Sayler deceived the mayor’s office in addition to the council, and quarantining the scandal to one person helps keep Langford’s staff in their jobs, something Smitherman seems content to do. But more heads might roll if those staff members become political liabilities. On Tuesday, the city council applauded Smitherman’s openness, but several councilors cautioned against using Sayler as a scapegoat for what they saw as a widespread deception.
“Did he do all of this in a vacuum?” Councilor Roderick Royal said. “No, I don’t believe that.”
Smitherman told the council that Sayler claimed the mayor’s staff knew about these financial problems.
Councilor Valerie Abbott said that Langford had verbally blasted her out of her chair when she asked about these very issues coming to light. Langford bullied the council into submission and now is the time for that to end, she said.
“I believe the fear and intimidation will be gone, and it is time for us to get some accurate information,” Abbott said.
The emperor has been overthrown. The king is dead. But will the kingdom die with him?
Two years of Larry Langford have nearly destroyed the City of Birmingham financially. On Tuesday I asked Mayor Smitherman what might have happened had Langford not been convicted and had his budget gone forward unabated.
“I shudder to think,” she said. “We would have run out of money.”
The verdict last week established Langford’s guilt, but it will be a long time before we’re done settling all his unanswered questions.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org