On an afternoon in 1996 Larry Paul Langford sat in his office at Fairfield City Hall smoking a cigarette and listening to the “creatives” from O2 Ideas, the advertising agency co-owned by John Zimmerman and Langford’s former boss from WATV, Shelley Stewart. Their task was to craft a brand for Mayor Langford’s big project, a taxpayer-funded amusement park.
Quickly, the current of the conversation changed directions, and the Fairfield mayor began to brainstorm aloud while the so-called creatives took notes. He didn’t need these creatives to give him ideas. He sat up into the early-morning hours just thinking about this kind of stuff while chain smoking, watching TV, munching vanilla wafers and pounding down pints of ice cream. That was when he had the best ideas. They were divine inspiration.
Deeply religious, Langford openly admitted that he was terrified of death and was doing his best to get into heaven. This project wasn’t just a government-funded theme park. This was the Lord’s work, and the Lord should get some credit, he said.
“To God be the Glory!” he said to the creatives. Langford wanted this message on everything — from the business cards to the signs at the gate.
One of the creatives spoke up. He asked, What about people who weren’t religious like Langford? How would that message play to people who weren’t Christians or into the whole Bible and Jesus thing? Might it turn some people off?
For the first time that day, the room was silent. Langford lifted his cigarette to his mouth and took another drag. He exhaled. He lifted his other hand toward the creatives. He extended a middle finger.
“Fuck ‘em,” he said.
As the story goes, Langford first got the idea for VisionLand when his niece asked him to take her to Six Flags in Atlanta. Why should people in Alabama drive to Georgia to spend their money, when we could have a park of our own right here? Langford evangelized the idea to almost everyone he met — regional mayors, media or men and women he met on the street.
His critics called the park idea a flight of fancy, but it was becoming apparent to everyone that this one was going to cross that line that separating possibility from reality. When it was done, there would be a brick relief of Langford in front of the ticket booths and turnstiles. It would show the Fairfield mayor with his hands around the shoulders of two children. And of course, it would say, “To God be the Glory.”
Langford didn’t think he was God, but he did want to be governor. Some political observers thought it plausible. Langford made the front page more than other suburban mayors, and the press had been overwhelmingly positive.
It hadn’t always been that way, though.
Nearly two decades before, a scandal in Birmingham sent Langford slinking into the political hinterlands. He had already been a star TV reporter, a Birmingham city councilor and a candidate for Birmingham mayor, but by 1981 his career had crashed and his personal life was in shambles, too. He took a job as a sales representative for KAR Products, an industrial supply company. He worked out of his apartment on Green Springs Avenue.
Langford used his connections to land a major client — the Birmingham Parks and Recreation Board. Park board officials would later tell the press that they felt sorry for Langford. They tried to help him out by buying supplies from him.
Many if not all of these purchases were in direct violation of the state bid law. A Birmingham Post-Herald investigation and an internal audit by the Birmingham Finance Department found that the park board officials would make small purchases from Langford, but when the orders arrived, the shipments and the bills were for much more than what the officials had requested.
“What really started happening, I’d order and get more than I would order,” park board supervisor Jim Rotenberry told the Post-Herald. “When we’d give him a purchase order for a certain amount, he’d duplicate it.”
Eventually, Langford sent the city $80,000 worth of supplies, at least $10,000 of which the city never ordered. Boxes of unwanted nuts and bolts began to pile up. When the story finally broke, the Post-Herald ran it above the fold on the front page, right next to a picture of Langford.
Langford said it wasn’t his responsibility to make city officials abide by the bid law. Nonetheless, the incident sparked talk of grand jury investigations and it left Langford with the apparent political mark of Cain: He was corrupt.
Later Langford would say that period of his life left him without any political ambition. KAR Products fired him, but slowly his fortunes improved. He got a public relations job at Birmingham Budweiser. He married his second wife, Melva, and moved to Fairfield. For about six years, he vanished from public life.
When he reappeared in 1988, the media initially treated it as an afterthought. In a front-page story, the Post-Herald apologized for leaving Langford out of an article about the Fairfield mayoral race. Accidentally, they had done Langford a favor, giving him the front page all to himself.
Langford had a solid understanding of issues affecting the western suburb. Much like Birmingham, Fairfield was transforming in the wake of white flight and the declining steel industry. The city’s tax base had dwindled to less than half its peak from a few years before. Infrastructure in the city was in decline.
Langford beat out a field of candidates to become Fairfield’s first black mayor. Immediately he clashed with the city council, which consisted of old Fairfield holdovers. Making matters more difficult for Langford, under the law, the council wielded administrative powers normally reserved for a mayor’s office.
However, Langford’s runaway-bulldozer style overwhelmed the council and he successfully lobbied the legislature to give the mayor’s office more power. In what would become a familiar theme throughout Langford’s political career, he raised sales taxes and borrowed money for infrastructure projects. He replaced sidewalks and paved streets. He baited retailers to abandon their locations in adjacent cities and relocate in Fairfield. He painted the Fairfield sidewalks purple and gold, Miles College colors. Gray was too boring, he said. He won praise for avoiding racial issues, while at the same time saying that Fairfield could be the “Black Hoover.”
Two years into his first term, something happened that repaired the damage from the Park Board scandal. Langford had been appointed to serve on the board of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity. The JCCEO was created to fight poverty in blighted communities, but corrupt employees enriched their families and friends, instead. A series of scandals seemed to prove suburban suspicions about black control of government.
The scandals didn’t snare Langford, though. He leaked valuable information to the press. He blasted board members for holding secret meetings and hiding misdeeds from the public.
“This is a public agency run with public funds and the law says meetings should be open to the public,” Langford told The Birmingham News. “I won’t do business any other way, and if (the board) doesn’t like it, so be it.”
Langford called on the FBI to investigate. When other board members complained about Langford showboating for the media, he threatened to resign from the board if they didn’t want to obey the law. Instead of being a small-time crook, Langford looked more like Eliot Ness. He was a crusader.
A convenient narrative began to crystallize for Langford. It’s archetypal of A&E Biography or on VH1’s Behind the Music: Rags to riches, hubris, back to rags, then transcendence. Eventually, everyone forgot about the Park Board scandal.
Langford’s antics in Fairfield captured headlines. One day while leaving Fairfield City Hall, he saw two teenagers push a woman to the ground and snatch her purse. Langford jumped into his truck and made chase. He reported the crime to the police on his car phone and tried to block the muggers in an alley with his vehicle. Later, he returned to the woman to make sure she was all right.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Langford is that he is a fiscal liberal and a social conservative. He won attention and praise from conservative suburban whites.
When Fairfield opened its new public swimming pool, Langford banned bikinis and speedos. The highways of history were littered with societies that forgot God, he told the Rotary and Kiwanis crowd. He told students to speak proper English, cut their hair and dress well. He preached to parents the virtues of corporal punishment.
For suburban whites and older blacks, Langford was the Great Black Hope. He was a champion to protect them from black youths and inner-city crime. He mixed the comforting humor of Bill Cosby, with the bad-ass take-no-prisoners attitude of Principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me. From a suburb only two-and-a-half square miles in size, Langford was becoming a regional leader.
Today, Langford blasts regionalism and metro government, but as mayor of Fairfield he pushed the idea harder than anyone. The lack of trust among Jefferson County’s 35 municipalities has been a perennial issue, but Langford made headway toward bridging these divisions.
In 1991, he first proposed a regional tourist destination in the Oxmoor Valley. It would include a theme park, which he first called “Vision Park,” and also adult attractions such as fishing, golf and sport shooting. (Skeet and trap shooting had become Langford’s latest personal obsession.) The total cost could be nearly $100 million, he said, and would require a kick-start of $10 million from the cities.
The plan evolved. It moved from Oxmoor to a plat north of Bessemer. Conceptual drawings of an enormous crystal palace entryway made of nothing but glass gave way to the more traditional concourse with turnstile gates. Langford had solicited financial support from all the municipalities in the metro area, but he won support from only 11.
As mayor of Fairfield, Langford belonged to the West Jefferson Mayors Association. For almost a century, the western cities had considered themselves the county’s stepchildren. Langford used that insecurity to his benefit. While over-the-mountain and eastern suburbs were wary of Langford’s park plan, the West Jefferson Mayors Association embraced it. Langford formed a consortium of municipal governments called the West Jefferson Amusement and Public Park Authority.
In addition to the western cities, Langford persuaded his old political rival, Mayor Richard Arrington to sign up Birmingham, too. The municipalities provided a revenue stream the park needed to float bonds.
In April of 1994, the park authority held a groundbreaking ceremony. Mayors from the 11 cities and business leaders from throughout the region donned hard hats and dug in the dirt. As many as 5,000 people showed up for the event despite a looming thunderstorm, The Birmingham News reported. Langford told the members of the crowd to join hands. Then he asked them to chant with him: “I can do all things through a God who strengthens me. To God be the Glory.”
The rain began to pour as fireworks exploded overhead. It’s easy now to take that as some kind of omen, but at the time, Larry Langford had never been more popular. That was about to change.
Langford’s narrative made for good storytelling, but it assumed something more than the facts. Articles about Langford during the mid-to-late 1990s often mentioned how he was less militant. (“Militant” being code for “crazy black man who challenges authority and scares white people.”) And there were photos to match. The helmet-like afro was gone, as were the wide lapels, tinted glasses and loud ties. Langford was still a snappy dresser, but he looked more business-like, with closely cropped hair that was beginning to gray around the edges. It implied, too, a change that was internal and personal — a Langford who had learned from his youthful mistakes.
But that storyline just wasn’t true. Langford’s fortunes had changed, but his character remained the same.
Much of the journalism from 30 years ago describes the Langford of today better than the work from a decade ago. During the late 1970s, Richard Friedman covered City Hall for The Birmingham News and the paper allowed him the editorial freedom to describe exactly what and whom he was seeing. Whole paragraphs could be unbolted from those columns and reattached into an article today without readers being able to see the seams.
Take this one, for example: “Langford is a master when it comes to manipulating the media. He works closely with reporters, feeding them tips and briefing them ahead of time so they have background when he comes out swinging,” Friedman wrote then. “It’s not surprising, in fact, to see television cameramen and reporters with tape recorders move toward him when a seemingly obscure item comes up on the council agenda. Apparently, they know in advance Langford is going to have something to say.”
Or better yet, this one: “Langford has had some financial problems in his past. During the middle 1970s, Langford ran up some debts forcing him to file a personal bankruptcy petition in U.S. District Court. At the time, he said he was $41,124 in debt. His net earnings at that time were listed at $7,500 a year,” Friedman wrote.
The consensus was that Richard Arrington would succeed Mayor David Vann, but two other candidates were making Arrington’s campaign more difficult — Langford and Councilor John Katopodis. From opposite ends of the council dais, the freshman councilors created a crossfire for their colleagues. It was an unlikely political kinship (and also an alliance that would last 30 years). Langford grew up in the projects and served in the Air Force before attending UAB. Katopodis was a Harvard Ph.D. who had run for city council after working for the Birmingham City Schools. Each had the potential to cut into Arrington’s base.
One artifact from that election is a video shot by a student A.V. Club at the old Thomas School. On the back of a flatbed truck, mayoral candidates gave stump speeches and answered questions from the crowd. Arrington spoke about his record and his plans for stabilizing Birmingham’s economy. Katopodis emphasized the importance of education. Langford delivered a battery of one-liners and zany ideas typical of his speeches today.
• Langford on crime: “If you want to stop crime in this city, parents have to teach children once again to start respecting other people’s property and parents have to start respecting other people’s property.”
• Langford on race relations: “Every campaign in this city turns racial. I’m not going to trade in my Corvette and go back to Africa, just like no white folks I know are going back to Europe. We need to address that and be done with that problem.”
• Langford on economic opportunity: “Throughout this campaign we’ve had mention of direct service from the airport where you can get on a plane when you graduate from high school or college and fly to another city and get a job because there ain’t no jobs in this city.”
• Langford on culture: “At the rate things are going, we are going to be the most culturally enlightened group of unemployed people you ever laid eyes on.”
That last barb was about a plan to turn Sloss Furnace into a cultural landmark. Instead, Langford proposed blowing up the “rusted-out monstrosity” and turning it into an industrial park.
The takeaway from the clips is a simple one: Langford was the same person then as he is today. He was never really “militant.” He was no Stokely Carmichael. To the contrary, he played to the racial middle. A former WBRC-TV reporter, he knew from the very beginning how the media worked and how to work the media.
His problems then, as now, were mostly financial. He spent money he didn’t have, and when the bills came due, he would borrow more. Most of his debts were department store credit for clothes and furniture. Legalizing greyhound racing in Birmingham was a pet issue. Then, as now, he loved gambling.
Arrington cautioned the public to be wary of Langford. How Langford spends his own money is how he would spend the public’s money, the future mayor warned.
On election day, Oct. 9, 1979, Langford finished in eighth place. At his campaign headquarters, he was undeterred by defeat. “I’m like death and taxes,” he told the Post-Herald. “I’ll be back.”
VisionLand busts out
The first sign that something was wrong at VisionLand came from the agency that marketed the park. VisionLand owed O2 Ideas more than $400,000, but the bill went unpaid. O2 Ideas let the public know they were being stiffed. More vendors followed. The park wasn’t paying its bills.
The City of Birmingham had suspected for more than a year that the park was tanking. Finance Director Mac Underwood sent memos and documentation to three mayors — Arrington, William Bell and Bernard Kincaid — imploring them to withdraw the city from the VisionLand consortium.
Studies commissioned later by Birmingham revealed that the park had been hemorrhaging money from the very beginning. VisionLand was supposed to use the proceeds from its initial $60 million bond sale for capital costs only, but the park had been using some of those funds for operating expenses. What’s more, the park was mingling operating funds with capital funds, and using revenue dedicated to debt service to pay operating costs.
In 1999, the park went back to the market to sell $90 million of bonds. Langford described it as a refinancing that would also give the park another $25 million for new construction. But Underwood’s investigation showed that only $2.6 million of that money went toward new construction. The rest went to either park operating expenses or exorbitant fees paid to the bond counsel and the bond dealer, Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount.
Without board approval, Langford fired the park’s general manager, Frank Thompson, and replaced him with Rob Langford (no relation), a former FBI agent who had managed security. Thompson sued for wrongful termination. He also claimed that Langford instructed him to withhold payments to vendors in order to inflate the park’s balance sheet.
At Langford’s insistence, the park built a robotic dinosaur exhibit. The animatronic lizards were made for indoors, but VisionLand put them outside. Dino Domain cost twice what was projected. Once open, the exhibit was a flop. It closed at the end of the 1999 season.
Meanwhile, for almost two and a half years, the park’s board never met. During that time, Langford called the shots. For more than a year and a half, Langford denied the existence of a fiscal year 2000 audit. When VisionLand eventually released the audit, it confirmed the park was dying fast. There was no way the park could make enough money to meet debt service.
In 2001, Jimmy Butts, the former director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, pleaded guilty to charges that he accepted bribes in exchange for arranging an interstate interchange near the VisionLand entrance. As part of the scheme, Langford arranged for VisionLand to sponsor a race car driven by Butts’ son. After the scandal became public, Langford claimed he had been extorted and was a victim. (cont’d on pg. 10)
In early 2002, Langford resigned from the VisionLand board. Later that year, the park declared Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Bondholders sold the park for $5.25 million to a private buyer. The new owners rebranded it Alabama Adventure and it has operated successfully ever since.
VisionLand was an embarrassment for Langford but not a career-ending scandal. Whenever asked about VisionLand, Langford has taken credit for the park’s existence, no matter the cost to investors. The victims of the VisionLand debacle were mostly institutional investors, all but invisible from the voting public.
Petri dish of corruption
Despite VisionLand, there were rumors Langford might run for Jefferson County Commission. The redistricting after the 2000 census put Langford in Commissioner Jeff Germany’s district. Soon, little white campaign signs began springing like dandelions from the roadsides. Langford’s slogan was a quote from a gospel hymn: “May the work I’ve done speak for me.”
It says something about the Jefferson County Commission that Langford was able to defeat Germany with a campaign against corruption and high sewer rates. Germany was under investigation for using pass-through pork to enrich friends and his family. Later, a federal jury in Birmingham found Germany guilty of public corruption charges. He served 32 months in prison and was released earlier this year.
Before Langford took office, he had his eye on bond deals associated with the court-ordered sewer rehabilitation project. He successfully sued to stop the lame-duck commission from handing out the bond business to their pet bankers. Langford wanted those spoils for himself.
Langford won the support he needed to become commission president. That position placed him in charge of the Finance Committee, along with Commissioners Gary White and Mary Buckelew. (All three commissioners have since been indicted or plead guilty to federal criminal charges.)
There had been a tradition in Jefferson County of dividing bond work five ways. Each of the five commissioners would then award their portion of the work to investment banks of their choosing. Langford followed tradition.
Several things were different, however, after Langford arrived. First, the sheer magnitude of the deals escalated. Second, the county began to shift nearly all of its fixed-rate debt to auction rate securities and variable rate demand warrants. This gave the county lower interest rates, at least until the spring of 2008, when the subprime mortgage crisis triggered interest rates of 10 and 12 percent. Third, the county began to play with esoteric derivatives called interest rate swaps. These deals, too, were supposed to save the county money, but by the time Langford left the commission they had cost the county as much as $150 million more in interest and fees to investment banks.
The notional value of the interest rate swaps exceeded the value of the underlying bonds. That is important because it is a clear indication that the county was using swaps to speculate, or in plain terms, gamble. Under Alabama law, it is permissible to use swaps to hedge against interest rate fluctuations, but speculation is illegal.
On top of this, Langford raised the county’s sales tax. The proceeds of the tax secured $1 billion of bonds for school construction.
Langford described these complicated deals as akin to refinancing a mortgage. He claimed they would save the county hundreds of millions of dollars. This was not just an oversimplification; it was wrong on all counts.
It’s unclear how much Langford actually understood. Later he told the Securities and Exchange Commission that he wouldn’t know a swap advisor from a rubber band. In that deposition, he described long lines of investment bankers waiting by his office to pitch him deals. He told the SEC that he depended on Finance Director Steve Sayler and the county’s financial advisor, Norm Davis, to sort the good deals from the bad.
In the courtroom it likely won’t matter whether Langford knew the deals could ruin the county. What prosecutors must prove is that Langford directed this business to his friend, the Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount, in exchange for bribes. Whether the deals were good or bad is irrelevant.
Blount and lobbyist Al LaPierre have already pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and conspiracy. From court documents, depositions and both men’s guilty pleas, the basics of the government’s case are clear.
As recently as 2003, Langford fell into severe financial straits, despite having substantial personal income. In 2006, Langford reported $270,000 of income to the Alabama Ethics Commission, but still he was overwhelmed by debt. What Langford didn’t report to the Ethics Commission was a series of payments from Blount and LaPierre. According to prosecutors, Blount and LaPierre arranged loans to Langford from Colonial Bank. When Langford could not pay those loans, LaPierre and Blount paid them instead.
In June 2007, Langford told the SEC that he needed the money to pay dental bills, but the Justice Department’s investigation found that much of the money went to pay off accounts at two high-end mens clothing stores. He used $30,000 to pay his taxes and another $12,000 to pay for audio equipment at Likis Audio. According to LaPierre’s guilty plea, the defendants gave Langford $3,500 cash so he could gamble with his friend and political pal, John Katopodis, at a Mississippi casino.
There is reason to believe Langford’s financial problems are the result of a severe gambling problem. Langford enthusiastically admits he gambles. Three lawsuits against Alabama casinos claim that those facilities, Victoryland and Greentrack, rigged machines for Langford to win. While Langford has denied the machines were rigged, he has not denied being at the casinos. Instead, he accused the plaintiffs’ attorney of having him followed.
One of the alleged incidents occurred less than two weeks after a federal magistrate declared Langford indigent and unable to pay for his own defense.
Defense attorney Tom Baddley has said that Langford has provided prosecutors with tax records reflecting large wins and losses from gambling.
At least one gambling machine manufacturer appeared before the federal grand jury, as did Alabama gambling magnate Milton McGregor. When asked by the SEC if he knew McGregor, Langford described him as an acquaintance. Since then he has told the media that McGregor is a longtime friend. McGregor was also the largest single contributor to Langford’s mayoral campaign.
McGregor is also mentioned in an email between Blount and a Colonial bank employee. In the email, Blount told the employee that Langford’s loan would soon be paid and that McGregor would tell then-Colonial Bank President Bobby Lowder that it had been taken care of. At the time, McGregor served on the board of Colonial Bank.
In a deposition in a civil trial between Katopodis and HealthSouth last year, Langford told the attorneys that he had been gambling with Katopodis recently. When the attorneys asked if he had gone with Katopodis to Mississippi, Langford said that they had gone to VictoryLand instead. Langford told the lawyers that they went to Mississippi only when they had money to lose. When they didn’t have money, they went to VicotryLand, he said.
His entire political career, Langford has been a gambling proponent.
“If it were up to me, we’d have (video) bingo on every corner,” he told the Birmingham city council earlier this month.
Regardless the cause of Langford’s financial problems, it is clear that Blount and LaPierre provided him money to cover his debts. Initially all three defendants claimed the payments were loans and they produced promissory notes to prove it. However, LaPierre later said in his guilty plea that the notes had been forged after the fact to cover up the scheme. However, Blount’s guilty plea contains no such admission.
In addition to gambling, Langford has a weakness for fine clothes and jewelry.
“I’m a kind of a clothes person,” Langford said in his SEC deposition. “I like clothes.”
According to prosecutors, Blount and LaPierre gave Langford lavish gifts of clothes and jewelry, something Langford denied to SEC investigators. In his June 2007 deposition, Langford said Blount might have bought him a shirt or a suit on a trip to New York.
Between 2003 and 2007, Blount and LaPierre bought Langford more than $88,000 worth of clothes and jewelry, including two watches valued at more than $10,000 each.
And Langford wasn’t the only recipient of such gifts. Blount bought shoes and a handbag at a Ferragamo boutique in New York for Commissioner Mary Buckelew in exchange for bond business. Buckelew has admitted accepting the gifts and last year pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice.
While in New York, the commissioners were supposed to negotiate with investment bankers, but emails obtained by the SEC and testimony from the defendants show the commissioners spent more time looking for deals on Fifth Avenue than on Wall Street. During his SEC deposition, Langford even told the investigators where in New York to find the best deals.
“You can go to Oxxford, and Oxxford will want $3,000 for a suit,” he told the SEC. “You can go to Century 21, you can get it for $400.”
All told, prosecutors say Langford received more than $236,000 from Blount and LaPierre. In exchange, Blount’s firm received more than $7 million of work from Jefferson County. On several occasions, Langford insisted that major investment banks, including JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, include Blount’s firm, Blount Parrish & Co., in bond deals and swaps.
Langford knew where in New York to find the best bargains on clothes, but Blount got the better deal.
By the summer of 2007, the Justice Department and the SEC were investigating Jefferson County’s bond deals. The county was in a futile struggle to solve its debt problem. The 2006 election had made Bettye Fine Collins commission president, and Langford had been marginalized by the new Republican majority.
It was time to move again.
Langford does Birmingham
Voters had tired of Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid. He seemed inert compared to Langford. In a 10-candidate race, Langford won with 51 percent of the vote, defeating established politicians such as Carole Smitherman and William Bell without a runoff.
“It’s time to do something,” Langford said in his campaign commercials.
He pushed his one-point crime plan (Put criminals behind bars) and glossed over the fact that he still lived in Fairfield. The mayor’s supporters still say his residence is a petty point, and perhaps Birmingham residents no longer care if their mayor cares to live in Birmingham. However, when Langford took the oath of office, he put his hand on a Bible in front of a U.S. District judge and he swore he was an eligible elector in the City of Birmingham. He lied.
Langford’s first 100 days were a whirlwind. As he had done in Fairfield and at Jefferson County, Langford pushed and passed a one cent sales tax increase. The proceeds were supposed to pay for a domed stadium, transit improvements and scholarships. The Birmingham business community tacitly supported the tax hike, only to get burned when Langford announced he wanted to put the domed stadium, not downtown, but next to Milton McGregor’s greyhound racing track in eastern Birmingham. Eventually, Langford relented, but only after the business community paid for a study to tell them what they already knew, that downtown was the logical site.
The scholarship program morphed into a program to buy inexpensive laptop computers for school children. Langford asked his long-time friend, Katopodis, to lead the initiative. The program exploded in scandal when a lawsuit between Katopodis and HealthSouth over a piece of Southside property revealed serious issues with a similar program called Computer Help for Kids. A charity begun by Langford, Katopodis and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, Computer Help had received more than $1 million from Birmingham and Jefferson County. The charity was never audited, despite attempts to do so by HealthSouth executives and the City of Birmingham. The civil lawsuit revealed that Katopodis had spent charity money for personal expenses and once hired a gay porn star to work for him.
Katopodis resigned from Langford’s new computer project. Several months later he was arrested on 97 counts of mail fraud and wire fraud. Earlier this year, a federal jury in Birmingham found him guilty on all counts. During the trial, witness testified that Katopodis had spent at least $250,000 of the charity’s money for personal interests, including trips to casinos with Langford.
Once in the mayor’s office, Langford replaced Finance Director Michael Johnson with former Jefferson County Finance Director Steve Sayler. At Jefferson County, Sayler oversaw all of the bond deals that have since imploded and left the county on the precipice of bankruptcy. What’s more, financial records were left in such shambles at the county that it took nearly two years for the county to prepare its most recent audited financial statement. Despite this, Langford decided Sayler was the man he wanted watching the city’s money.
This summer, the mayor’s office insisted that the city had ended the 2009 fiscal year with a $13 million surplus. However, using the finance department’s own accounting software, the city council’s analysts showed that the city actually ended the fiscal year with a $28 million deficit. Three months into the new fiscal year, the mayor’s office released a fund balance analysis that showed the council’s numbers had been right all along. It’s difficult to square how the Finance Department could have missed the mark by $41 million unless it did so on purpose.
Despite the fact that the city’s reserves are now depleted well below minimums set by council policy, the mayor’s office continues to propose large expenditures from the city’s savings.
On Dec. 1, 2008, federal authorities arrested Mayor Langford on his way to his second job at Birmingham Budweiser. The same day, they unsealed a 101-count indictment against Langford, Blount and LaPierre.
Jekyll and Hyde
When looking back on Langford’s brief tenure as Birmingham mayor, the astonishing thing really is how much he has gotten done, for better or worse.
Even as his confidant Katopodis was exposed as a cheat and a thief of public funds, even as Langford’s gambling habits have been revealed, even as his colleagues have pleaded guilty one by one and agreed to testify against him, even as his pattern of reckless spending and questionable financial propriety has followed him to Birmingham City Hall — despite all these things, Langford has marched forward undaunted and undeterred. No one on the city council dared push back as hard as Langford pushed them.
While under federal indictment for bribery and conspiracy, Langford served as ringmaster for a groundbreaking ceremony for a domed stadium, perhaps the most coveted and controversial public project in the city’s history. People took this seriously. Not just curious citizens, but CEOs, media elites and fellow politicians attended the event, while protestors across the street chanted, “Go to jail! Go to jail!”
By sheer force of personality he has persisted and persevered. His audacity cannot be measured. It is something far from normal.
There are two stories Langford has told consistently about his childhood.
The first story is about the only time he says he ever stole anything. He swiped 85 cents, which he used to buy a package of oatmeal cookies. He had too many cookies to eat, so he asked a barber to hang on to the rest for him. The barber told Langford’s mother.
According to Langford, his mother striped him naked, tied him to a bedpost with some old panty hose and whipped him with an electrical cord she had cut from her iron. After his mother tired of whipping him, she went downstairs to cook dinner for the rest of the family. Then she returned to whip him again because he’d called the barber a liar. The beating was so severe that Langford’s stepfather had to take him to the hospital. After he’d been treated, his stepfather took Langford to the city jail to show him where he’d go if he continued to steal. When Langford has told this story, he has done so with no animosity toward his mother. To the contrary, he lauds the abuse as good parenting.
The second story comes from a little later in Langford’s life. When he was about 15 years old, Langford had fallen for a girl. He saved up money to buy her a box of chocolates. When he called on her, the girl’s father asked where he was from. Langford told him Loveman Village, one of the roughest housing projects in Birmingham’s west side. The girl’s father told him nothing but thugs came from the projects and he forbade Langford from seeing his daughter.
Are the stories true? Well, they come from Larry Langford. Not to practice too much armchair psychoanalysis, but there is something damaged and different about him, regardless of the cause. Whatever shaped Langford’s psyche, it left him with abject cupidity and uncontrollable impulsiveness. Lots of kids think to themselves, “When I grow up, I’ll eat nothing but cookies and ice cream.” But Langford actually did it. And he brags about it.
When you watch Langford in action long enough, one question rises above all others: But for his character flaws, would he have ever been successful?
There is a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to Langford. He really could have been the best mayor Birmingham ever had, but the intensity of the character traits turns them self-destructive.
Langford has a powerful imagination. He can see things that do not yet exist and insist they become reality. And yet, there is a line between imagination and fantasy. Just because he can imagine a budget surplus doesn’t make it real.
Langford has a sense of urgency Birmingham badly needs. That’s one of the qualities voters found so appealing after eight years of Kincaid. However, that urgency quickly turns to impatience, causing him to alienate or fire people who are simply trying to make his ideas better.
At his best, Langford has been a regional leader. At his worst, he has been a con artist. At least, he hasn’t been boring.
Unless Langford enters a last-minute plea agreement, he will stand trial next week on federal corruption charges. It is possible he will testify in his own defense. And when that happens, which Larry Langford will that jury see?