Birmingham Mayor Faces Bribery Trial
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The mayor of Alabama's largest city goes on trial today on federal bribery charges. Birmingham Mayor, Larry Langford, is accused of accepting cash, clothes and jewelry in exchange for steering millions of dollars in county bond deals to an investment banker. Tanya Ott reports from member station WBHM.
TANYA OTT: Larry Langford knows how to stir things up. The former TV reporter turned politician is known for holding bible lessons in city hall. He once marched into a council meeting flanked by submachine gun-toting cops to unveil a top secret financial plan. The man knows how to make an entrance and an impression. As mayor of a nearby town, he gave every student who made the honor roll $100. Eric Guster is a local attorney who's not involved in the mayor's trial but is video blogging about it.
Mr. ERIC GUSTER (Attorney): When you're talking about families who are poor and someone gives you $100 and actually spends time with your child, he was a hero for that small community.
OTT: But prosecutors say when Langford was a Jefferson County commissioner, he accepted $235,000 in designer clothes, jewelry and cash from lobbyist Al LaPierre. In exchange, Langford allegedly steered millions of dollars in sewer bond deals to investment banker Bill Blount. Those bond deals have since gone south and the county faces what would be the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Mayor LARRY LANGFORD (Birmingham, Alabama): Let me say this. This is America. You can indict a ham sandwich in this country. You take off the lettuce and tomato, anything can go to jail.
OTT: In an interview recorded before the judge issued a gag order, Mayor Langford said he, LaPierre and Blount are long-time friends who often lent money to each other. He said they had a signed contract for a loan.
Mayor LANGFORD: If I did business with the people that I don't know and they walked off with the money, you'd say you should have gotten to know that person. If I do business with people that I do know and have confidence in, you're going to say, well, those are your friends. You shouldn't do business with them.
OTT: Both LaPierre and Blount have pleaded guilty and will testify against Langford. Video blogging attorney Eric Guster says the defense will attack that testimony head-on.
Mr. GUSTER: If a person has plead guilty to a sentence of four years versus 80 years or 100 years, then that can influence them not to tell the truth, and to kind of tell the government what they want to hear.
OTT: Bill Blount and Al LaPierre are two of the most politically connected Democrats in Alabama. Larry Langford is also a Democrat. The former U.S. attorney who indicted the trio was appointed by President George W. Bush, and Langford supporters say the prosecution is politically motivated.
This is the latest in a string of local political corruption cases. In recent years, more than a half dozen Birmingham area officials have gone to prison on charges ranging from obstruction of justice to bribery.
Jay Grinney is CEO of HealthSouth Corporation, the rehabilitation company that itself was the subject of a $3 billion accounting fraud. Grinney was brought in to fix the company's image and he's a high profile figure leading the effort to clean up Birmingham, starting with Mayor Langford.
Mr. JAY GRINNEY (Chief executive officer, HealthSouth Corporation): He created these huge problems that are on the verge of bankrupting the county, you know, the indictments. And it's inconceivable. That kind of leadership is detrimental to every single person who lives in this community.
OTT: Again, Mayor Larry Langford.
Mayor LANGFORD: If Christ returned tomorrow morning we'd be ready to put him in jail. In this city, people never look for good, they always look for adversity.
OTT: If convicted, Larry Langford faces hundreds of years in prison. His trial is expected to last two weeks.
For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Alabama.
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