Federal prosecutor: Birmingham mayor took $235 thousand in bribes from investment banker

Associated Press and Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Deeply in debt and fond of fancy clothes and jewelry, Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford took tens of thousands in cash and expensive gifts from a politically connected investment banker who made millions in county bond business in return, prosecutors said yesterday.

But Langford’s attorney told the federal court jury that the banker, Bill Blount, schemed to ‘entrap and manipulate’ Langford.

The case is about ‘a stab in the back and a deal with the devil,’ defense attorney Michael Rasmussen said.

Langford is accused of accepting $235,000 in cash and gifts from Blount while serving as president of the Jefferson County Commission. Blount, a former Alabama Democratic Party chairman, has pleaded guilty in the case and awaits sentencing. Prosecutors say some of the money was funneled from Blount to Langford through Al LaPierre, a lobbyist and former state Democratic Party executive director who also has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

Blount’s Montgomery firm got some $7.1 million in fees for the work with Jefferson County arranged by Langford, prosecutors said.

Jefferson County is still dealing with fallout from soured bond deals it struck under Langford’s tenure. Unable to pay some $3.9 billion in debt, officials currently are trying to avoid filing what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy ever.

Charged with multiple counts of bribery, fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns, Langford would be automatically removed from office as mayor if convicted of a felony. He could also face years in prison and fines.

The defense, in opening statements, said Blount began manipulating Langford after Langford’s election to the Jefferson County Commission in 2002. Langford became commission president and oversaw the financing of sewer bonds.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney George Martin said soon after winning his post Langford asked Blount for money and received the first bribe: a $50,000 loan from Colonial Bank, which Blount paid off.

Unable to pay his bill at a high-end clothing store, Martin said, Langford later went to LaPierre and got another loan, which Blount also paid off.

‘Around this same time, Mr. Blount began asking for business from Jefferson County,’ Martin told jurors.

In a series of bond deals, the prosecutor said, New York investment banks JP Morgan Chase ‘amp; Co. and Bear, Stearns ‘amp; Co. Inc. included Blount’s Montgomery firm in the bond work at Langford’s urging.

On five bond trips to New York, Martin said, Blount lavished the county commissioner with gifts including a $12,000 watch and $1,100 cardigan sweater. Another time, Blount gave Langford a $12,000 Rolex, Martin said.

But Langford also gave gifts to Blount, Rasmussen said, insisting that the bond work was not connected. He said that’s the way politics was played: Democrats hired Democrats and Republicans hired Republicans. He said Langford needed help from someone he trusted with complicated bond deals to finance billions of dollars in work on the county’s dilapidated sewer system.

‘It was the practice in Jefferson County,’ he said. ‘These little county officials don’t know who is going to buy $1 billion in bonds. The bankers do.’

Rasmussen acknowledged that Langford is a shopaholic and tends to move from project to project quickly, leaving the details to others he trusts.

‘Bill Blount decided to take advantage of these faults to manipulate Larry Langford,’ he said.

Stacking seven large file boxes atop a table to represent the more than $7 million that Blount’s firm made of Jefferson County bond deals, Rasmussen then put down a small box representing the money Langford is accused of accepting in bribes.

‘Some conspiracy,’ said Rasmussen.