"That's one million," Rasmussen said.
He took another box. Another plop as it landed on top of the first.
"That's two million."
Another box. Plop.
And a fourth. Four million. And a fifth. Five million. A sixth. Six million. And a seventh.
"Seven million dollars," Rasmussen said.
The tower of boxes now stood as tall as the lawyer. Each box represented a million dollars the Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount made off Jefferson County bond deals. Blount has pleaded guilty to bribing Langford to direct that business his way, and he has agreed to testify against Langford in this trial.
However, Rasmussen argued that Langford was the victim. Blount was the real villain, he said.
According to Rasmussen, Blount set out early to exploit Langford's weaknesses. Langford was a flawed but well-intentioned public servant. He had big ideas, but he was awful at following through on the details. He left the small stuff to other people. Blount knew this. Langford was also a "shopaholic," Rasmussen said. Blount knew this, too, and he used that weakness to seduce Langford.
In court later that day, the jury would hear what kind of shopaholic Langford was. When most people use that word — shopaholic — they're so flip with it no one pays it any mind. It's a joke, right? Not a real addiction like alcoholism or gambling.
Not with Langford. In court, two clothiers testified about the mayor's spending habits at their stores and the debts he ran up there. Richard Pizitz Jr. told the jury how Langford ran up more than $45,000 in debts, maxing out his store credit at Gus Mayer. The store had to sue Langford to make him pay. Despite having to sue Langford once, the store let him keep his account. It currently carries a balance of $10,000 owed to the store.
Remon Danforah, owner of Remon's, recounted how Blount and lobbyist Al LaPierre brought Langford into his store. LaPierre told Danforah that he and Blount would pay for Langford's purchases. Langford spent $54,000 of their money at the store, prosecutors say.
And there were purchases on trips to New York. When Langford was supposed to be negotiating with investment bankers on Wall Street, Blount and Langford were shopping on Fifth Avenue. There, they bought suits, and coats and Rolexes and a cardigan sweater worth $1,100. "That must have been a nice sweater," prosecutor George Martin said.
According to prosecutors, Blount gave Langford about $235,000 worth of cash, clothes and jewelry. However, Rasmussen argues that amount is a paltry sum when compared to Blount's take, and that disproportion alone shows there was no scheme to bribe or defraud.
Once he was done building his tower of black file boxes, Rasmussen took out another black file box, only this one was even smaller. About big enough to hold a sleeve of business cards, he held it out in front of the jury. He compared its smallness to the tower. If the tower was Blount's take, then the tiny black box in his hand was Langford's. If this was a scheme to swindle and steal, then Langford was ripped off, he argued.
From a tactical standpoint, the defense's argument makes sense. The cost of these items — $12,000 for a watch, $1,100 for a sweater — must seem outrageous to the juror who wears his camouflage hunting jacket every day to court. The defense has to alter that sense of proportion. They must make Langford's sins look smaller by setting them next to Blount's, and then they must use that imbalance to argue there never were any sins to begin with.
There's going to be a troublesome witness, though, who could explain to the jury the strange psychology of bribery from a politician's perspective. When Mary Buckelew was on the County Commission she sold her influence to Blount, too, only she came cheaper than Langford. Much cheaper. During a few of those junkets to New York, Blount bought Buckelew a couple pairs of shoes, a handbag and a day at the spa. Mind you, these were very nice shoes from Ferragamo, but unlike Langford, Buckelew could have afforded these things with her own money. She and Blount admit Blount was trying to influence her vote on the commission. She took the gifts anyway.
In the Bible, Jacob's brother Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of soup, but he drove a tough bargain compared to some of our politicians. Langford's defense wants the jury to believe that politicians' influence doesn't come cheap, but the truth is that it almost always comes cheap. In fact, the cheaper the bribe, the better. If some contractor or bond dealer approached a commissioner proposing to split the take fifty-fifty, that commissioner would check the windows and have the office swept for bugs. But for a nice tie or some earrings? The apparent harmlessness makes cheating irresistible, like a golfer kicking his ball out of the rough when no one's looking.
Cupidity is a word that has all but vanished from our language. It is lust and materialism wrapped into one, and like the best poisons, it is lethal in small doses.
Langford's support didn't cost Blount that much, unless you count his freedom. Blount is going to jail, and what is Jefferson County left with except $3.8 billion in debt it can't pay? Still, the cost is greater. Citizens feel that a dollar paid in taxes is a dollar stolen. They can't trust their government.
That trust was in that last little box. That box might have been smaller than the others, but it was the heaviest box in the room.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org