But this little activity brings people together, too. Smokers share more than an addiction. They’re an embattled tribe pushed into smaller and smaller territories. It used to be you could smoke in hospitals if you wanted. Now the powers-that-be have drawn a little penalty boxes on the ground 50 feet from the nearest doors. Smokers have to share those spaces and hidden corners with each other, and it’s understood that no matter who you are, you have to be civil with your cellmates there.
Some of my best sources are people I used to smoke with. Heck, even Mayor Larry Langford and I once got along splendidly as fellow smokers, but later we went our separate ways. He built his private smoking deck off the mayor’s office at City Hall. I quit smoking about two years ago.
However, I still had the habit in the summer of 2006, when former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy and former Gov. Don Siegelman stood trial in Montgomery. During a slow stretch in the testimony, I stepped outside for a fix. I had cigarettes, but I quickly realized I had left my lighter at home that morning. I patted my pockets and rummaged through my bag — no matches, no nothing. I began to panic. I looked around for someone to help me.
The federal courthouse in Montgomery is built like a fortress disguised as a palace. The building forms a large semicircle with an open space setting the front door well away from the street. In that courtyard there are a few benches for the alienated tribe, and that day, I found a very dapper man sitting there alone. Thank God, I thought, another smoker.
He wore a crisp gray suit and large stylish sunglasses that hid his eyes from me. When I asked him for a light, his reflex was slow and reluctant, the kind of response you give someone who’s begged you for money. Still, I tried to be sociable. He lent me his lighter, and I asked him what brought him to the courthouse that day.
(An awkward pause.)
He told me he had to testify in a trial inside. I asked him which one.
(Another awkward pause.)
He told me the Siegelman-Scrushy trial.
“Really?” I said. “I’m a reporter covering that trial. My name’s Kyle Whitmire. What’s your name?”
(Another very long awkward pause.)
“I don’t want to tell you my name,” he said.
In all my time as a reporter, I had never had someone just flat out refuse to tell me his name. More than being rude, he was violating the smoker’s code. My inner smart-ass became my outer smart-ass.
“A funny thing is about to happen,” I told him. “You’re going to go inside. And when they put you on the witness stand, someone is going to ask you a question. And that question is going to be, ‘What’s your name?’ And I’m going to be there with my little notebook to write it down.”
(Another very, very long awkward pause.)
“I’m Bill Blount,” the dapper man said.
I wish I could stand outside myself and replay that moment just to see the look on my own face. I know what I thought: “Hell, I wouldn’t have wanted to tell me who you were, either.”
The early facts of the catastrophe in Jefferson County were slowly beginning to emerge. Blount was an old friend of then-Commission President Langford. Langford had steered lucrative bond business to Blount’s firm. Blount Parrish & Co. had made millions on the deals, but Blount had refused to say what his firm had done to deserve any of that money. Rumors were rampant that he bought Langford expensive clothes and jewelry. What’s more, the bond deals were not well understood. They were complex derivatives known as interest rate swaps, and much of the county’s fixed rate debt had been converted to variable rate demand warrants and auction rate securities.
I tried to resuscitate our conversation.
“Nice weather we’re having today,” I said to the dapper man. But he didn’t respond. He just sat there staring forward into empty space. He refused to acknowledge that I existed.
“Are you going to testify next?” I asked. Again, no response. I gave up. I thanked him for the light, and he gave me a slight nod. I walked back inside the courthouse where an hour or two later, the dapper man took the witness stand.
Blount had a peripheral role in the Montgomery trial. Without Blount’s knowledge, one of the government’s witnesses, a lobbyist named Lanny Young, had taped a conversation with Blount. The dapper man’s voice was loud and gravelly in the recording. He was upset that gambling magnate Milton McGregor, whom he kept calling “Elvis,” was considering getting into the landfill business. Blount said they would help Elvis get his bingo and video poker, but he needed to forget about dealing with trash. On the stand, Blount authenticated the tape and then he was gone.
I saw the dapper man again this week in federal court, but he didn’t have much more to say then, either. In the federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, he answered a few questions from U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler. At one point, he had to tell Judge Coogler how to pronounce “Tourneau,” the name of the New York timepiece boutique where he bought Langford a $12,015 watch.
Under a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Blount will receive no more than 52 months in federal prison and have to pay $1 million. In exchange, he will testify for the prosecution and help investigators. He admits bribing Langford and former Commissioner Mary Buckelew. Ultimately, he was there Tuesday to say one word.
The dapper man of few words is talking now. I hope someone has told him the bad news.
They don’t even allow smoking in prison anymore.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com