Birmingham mayor Larry Langford was arrested by FBI agents at about 7:00 this morning. He’s charged with receiving $230,000 from an investment banker whose firm made more than $7 million off of bond financing business for Jefferson County. Langford was chairman of the county commission at the time.
The county is now heading toward bankruptcy because of the bonds, which were supposed to pay for upgrades to the sewer system. It’s looking inevitable, and it will be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Langford is charged with accepting bribes from investment banker Bill Blount that were arranged through their mutual friend Al LaPierre, a lobbyist and former
chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. The criminal indictment against the three men runs to 101 counts. There’s also a civil suit pending from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The local grapevine was humming by 8:30, and U.S. Attorney Alice Martin held a press conference at about 10:00. What with the trials of HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy and former governor Don Siegelman, Ms. Martin has become a familiar face around here. (Siegelman and Scrushy had expensive professional help in prolonging their days in court: Scrushy had PR help in rallying a segment of the African American clergy to his side, while Siegelman had some success in portraying himself as a martyr of the big, bad Bush administration. But that’s another story.)
We knew this was coming. So many people have already been caught lining their pockets from the proceeds of financing sewer construction in our county, including former commissioners Chris McNair and Mary Buckelew (who sold her reputation remarkably cheap). Jeff Germany was jailed in 2006 for an unrelated fraud conspiracy, veteran commissioner Gary White is under indictment, and current chair Betty Fine Collins is wearing the crown uneasily. I haven’t even mentioned the county employees and contractors who went to jail over corruption during the bidding and hiring process, or the debacle of the aborted “super sewer” tunnel under the Cahaba River.
Much of this preceded Langford’s election to the commission along with another former TV journalist, Shelia Smoot, in 2002. (I volunteered for Smoot’s initial campaign to unseat minister Steve Small, and I celebrated both her victory and Langford’s.) This charismatic pair was supposed to carry out the voters’ desire for reform and an end to corruption. Instead, Langford presided over arcane bond swaps that amounted to $5.7 billion — that’s billion with a B — and cost the county millions more than was necessary to pay in fees.
There is plenty of blame to lay at the feet of Wall Street financiers, who apparently played our local officials for rubes. But Langford appears to have compounded the problem by repeating his personal finance errors (which are legion) on a grand scale. His personal bankruptcy overshadowed his first unsuccessful run for mayor in 1979. His “Visionland” theme park scheme filed for bankruptcy just before Langford joined the county commission. And the SEC probe of his role in county bond deals followed closely on his election as mayor of Birmingham. (Kyle Whitmire’s election-season profile of Langford will tell you plenty more about the man’s life and times.)
This is a spectacle, no doubt about it. But there’s an ugly parochial side to the online gloating over Langford’s fall from grace. We well-doin’ white folks on Southside, or in the city’s more desirable oak-shaded neighborhoods, enjoy mocking our mayor and his crazy ways. But we’re in the minority. We dominate commentary on the Internet, but we shouldn’t assume that we represent the mind of our city.
Back in February I tried to set out my complicated view of Mayor Langford in a comment at The Terminal. His charismatic faith and his urgent energy helped him beat a crowded field of candidates in the first round of balloting. I think that’s because the majority of voters placed an almost desperate faith in him. Faced now with his arrest, many of them will be skeptical about trusting the state more than they trust this “man of God” who is unafraid to humble himself before the Lord in sackcloth and ashes.
Don’t get me wrong: Devout Christian voters are as capable of skepticism as any Bottletree hipster, and I guess many of them have found Langford’s religiosity as preposterous as we do. But their skepticism is just as likely to swing the other way as well, namely toward the federal government that arrested him. Besides, Langford’s certitude that he is the best leader Birmingham can hope for is contagious, perhaps leading many to wonder where the city will be without him. Who else is prepared to “do something”?
In February I thought that “if Langford winds up in jail, I suppose he will be as baffled and angry as a man can be.” Here’s hoping that his anger doesn’t manage to tear the city apart as well. The self-righteous defiance offered by local pastor Gregory Clarke after his conviction on tax fraud charges doesn’t set a very encouraging precedent. For Clarke’s supporters, and very likely for many of Langford’s, the government is an agent of the fallen world seeking to hinder the doers of God’s word.
It’s a compelling story, and no harder to swallow than a list of financial fraud charges. Besides, if the government really cared about stopping financial fraud, would Wall Street get a bailout while homes in Gardendale are being seized for default on a mortgage? Would Parkway East be choked with payday lenders, title pawn shops, and the empty hulks of abandoned bank branches? Wouldn’t life be a little different for the average person from Ensley, or Pinson, or West End?
There are many ways to answer these questions, but none of them are simple or encouraging.
I’ll close with some links to the breaking story: