Parkman was making his closing statement, defending his client, John Katopodis. For the last week and a half Katopodis had been on trial for using funds from a charity he ran, Computer Help for Kids, for personal reasons, including political purposes. The point Parkman was trying to make Tuesday was that Katopodis hadn’t attempted to conceal any of this activity from anyone.
I don’t buy that completely. If Parkman were right and Katopodis had no secrets, there wouldn’t have been so many surprises during last week’s trial and a long list of politicians wouldn’t have so much explaining to do. But if we’re talking about that long list of politicians, Parkman’s claim is a bold one. Did anyone who benefited politically from Computer Help for Kids know what was going on? Or as the old saw goes, what did they know and when did they know it?
The documents entered into evidence and the testimony in court revealed what a lot of people had suspected about Computer Help for Kids. Katopodis used the charity as a personal slush fund. Public dollars from the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County poured into the charity’s accounts, while Katopodis spent nearly a third of that money on personal expenses, including trips abroad for friends and jaunts to casinos in Mississippi and New Orleans.
But among all those expenses were favors Katopodis did for politicians he liked, even when he played both sides in an election.
In court last Thursday, Gordon Jeffery Giles, the CEO of a Louisiana tech company, testified that Katopodis was one of his better friends. He called him smart and honest, even with the evidence to the contrary in front of him. Giles’ company specializes in autodialers, sometimes called robocalls. If you’re among the dwindling number of people still using a land line phone, you’re probably more familiar with these than you want to be.
In addition to being one of Giles’ better friends, Katopodis was a good client, too. He arranged autodialer campaigns for numerous candidates and then paid Giles’s company with funds from Computer Help for Kids.
Candidates who received such help from Computer Help for Kids included:
• Rep. Patricia Todd, District 54;
• Gaynell Hendricks, candidate for District 54;
• Scott Briggs, candidate for Jefferson County Commission;
• Jim Carns, Jefferson County Commission;
• Alva Lambert, candidate for Court of Criminal Appeals;
• George Wallace Jr., candidate for Lt. governor.;
• Ron McGuffie, candidate for Jefferson County sheriff.
Prosecutors played the recorded messages in court. Some were what political junkies call “name ID” spots, giving boilerplate info about the candidates. Others, specifically from Carns and McGuffie, were aggressive attacks against their opponents. Curiously, Hendricks and Todd received help from Katopodis, even as they were facing off in the same race.
These weren’t the only politicos tangled in Computer Help for Kids’ business. One witness, Charles P. Hill, testified that Katopodis paid him to work on the failed 2002 commission race of former Birmingham City Councilor Jimmy Blake. Checks introduced into evidence showed that Katopodis paid Hill out of Computer Help for Kids bank account. On the witness stand, Blake said he remembered Hill, but that Hill had not been his campaign manager, as Hill claimed in court.
Jefferson County commission president Bettye Fine Collins testified that she received $10,000 for consulting work from the Council of Cooperating Governments, another organization Katopodis runs. That organization frequently comingled funds with Computer Help for Kids, which received most of its funding from Jefferson County. Collins described the consulting work as advocacy for a high-speed rail line through Birmingham, but the specifics of her description sounded much like the job taxpayers already pay her to do as a commissioner. The payment came at the same time HealthSouth was paying Katopodis to solicit tax breaks from the county for the so-called digital hospital on Highway 280.
One local politician had the Spidey sense to turn down an offer that would have landed her in trouble. Birmingham City Council President Carole Smitheman testified that Katopodis offered to pay her way on a trip to a women’s leadership conference in Egypt. Katopodis frequently called her office, almost badgering her about the trip. Smitherman said she didn’t trust Katopodis, who was being pushy. She finally refused to go, but not before Katopodis had bought her a plane ticket.
Katopodis tried to get a refund on that ticket, but to do so, he turned to his friend Jimmy Blake. A physician, Blake wrote a letter to the airline saying that Smitherman wouldn’t be able to make the trip. In court, Blake said that the letter was purposely misleading so that someone reading it might infer that Blake was Smitherman’s doctor. He never has been her doctor.
And of course, there’s Larry Langford. Mayor Langford co-founded Computer Help for Kids with Katopodis and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy. He also arranged nearly $750,000 of funding from Jefferson County when he was commissioner there, and frequently he expedited payments and had checks delivered directly to his office, according to testimony in court.
One witness testified that Katopodis bought a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair from him for Langford, although Langford’s wife, Melva Langford, disputed that on the witness stand. However, Katopodis did buy a piano for the Langfords, she said. Evidence in court showed that Computer Help for Kids paid for half that piano. Richard Scrushy paid the other half.
Parkman’s assertion that all of this was open and obvious is a farce. Auditors from the city of Birmingham and HealthSouth tried to pry the charity’s books from Katopodis’ hands, but failed. But for that long list of politicians who received favors from Katopodis, it was a different sort of matter. Unlike the auditors, they didn’t want to know. The less they knew, the better it was for them, and the worse for everybody else.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture and the recipient of the 2009 Altweekly Award for Best Political Column. Write to email@example.com