TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford's series of rapid-fire ideas to enliven Alabama's largest city including a bid to bring in the Olympics earned him the nickname of "Mayor LaLa" from his critics.
The 63-year-old former TV newscaster took office in a landslide two years ago and was once mentioned as a gubernatorial candidate. It all came to an end Wednesday when federal jurors convicted him of accepting bribes in exchange for funneling $7.1 million in bond business to a prominent investment banker. The conviction automatically removes him from office and he could face years in prison.
Outside the courtroom, Langford and his wife, Melva, blamed the conviction on race, which the prosecutor and his defense attorney discounted.
"They struck as many blacks off that jury as they could," Langford said.
Three of the 12 jurors were black.
"In Alabama, black people will never get a fair trial," Melva Langford said. "There should be a total investigation of the Justice Department."
Jurors deliberated less than two hours before returning their sweeping verdict on all 60 counts. It came after six days of testimony in which they heard Langford accepted cash and luxury items worth some $236,000 while serving as president of the Jefferson County Commission. In exchange, prosecutors said, Langford sent lucrative bond business to investment banker Bill Blount.
Langford showed no emotion when the verdict was read. He was freed on $50,000 bond until his sentencing, which the judge said would be in about three months, and he agreed to forfeit $241,843. He was charged with bribery, conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns.
Prosecutor George Martin said calling for an investigation by the Justice Department was "ridiculous" and he denied that race played a role in Langford's prosecution or the trial's outcome.
"It was a diverse jury. It was because of the evidence, not the jury," he said.
One of Langford's attorneys, Glennon Threatt, who is black, said he has done previous corruption cases with white defendants and race was not a factor in Langford's case.
The interim mayor is Carole Smitherman, the president of the city council. It's not clear when or how a permanent replacement will be picked.
Known for his flashy clothes and idea-a-minute style of governing, his series of plans included a trolley system, domed stadium and a Pentagon-shaped building for services in the city of about 217,000.
Langford, a Democrat, was elected to the Birmingham City Council in 1977 after working as one of the city's first black television reporters. Langford was virtually unknown outside the metro area until 1995, when he came up with the idea for a taxpayer-backed amusement park called VisionLand that was backed by a consortium of cities.
The $60 million park went bankrupt. Langford then won the first of two terms on the Jefferson County Commission. In 2007, with the county on the eve of a huge debt crisis that has it teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Langford ran for mayor. He won, defeating nine opponents without a runoff.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamarra Matthews Johnson told jurors in closing arguments that Langford was heavily in debt and accepted the gifts from Blount, along with checks or loan payoffs through a middleman, lobbyist Al LaPierre. Both Blount and LaPierre pleaded guilty in the scheme and testified against Langford.
The defense claimed the payments were loans, but prosecutors called them bribes.
"This is the kind of loan people dream about. It's a fairy-tale loan," Johnson said.
The defense portrayed Langford as a chronic shopaholic who never considered Blount's largesse to be bribery, partly because of his own tendency to give away items large and small.
"This was not just one payment to the defendant. This was not just one shopping trip," Johnson said. "This was a deliberate course of action for almost five years."
Some of the bond deals made during Langford's term went sour in the credit crunch last year, and Jefferson County is now trying to avoid filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history over $3.9 billion in sewer bond debt.
Government witnesses depicted Langford as buried in debt — with few assets and liabilities of about $650,000, including nearly $240,000 in credit card debt and more than $90,000 in car loans. An IRS agent said Langford owed $77,506 in taxes on unreported income.
The defense case consisted primarily of character witnesses. Langford did not testify.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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