Langford talked of his debt

Published 9:54 pm Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The always flamboyant and well-dressed mayor of Alabama’s largest city told federal investigators last year that he had big debts, in part from buying expensive attire, and he had a buddy who simply helped him pay off the bills.

But prosecutors claim Mayor Larry Langford’s upscale clothing and flashy jewelry purchases were part of a bribery scheme that steered lucrative county bond work to an investment banker friend and hundreds of thousands of dollars to another buddy, a well-known lobbyist in the state.

The three men were named in a 101-count indictment Monday that includes charges of conspiracy, fraud, bribery, money laundering and filing false tax returns. They have pleaded not guilty and are free on bond. Langford said the men, all Democrats, were targeted by a Republican U.S. attorney, a charge the federal prosecutor disputes.

“If y’all are waiting for me to drop my head and crawl through the halls, it ain’t gonna happen,” Langford, dapper in a gray suit with a colorful tie and sweater vest, said outside a City Council meeting Tuesday. “I will be the same Larry, good or bad depending on who you ask, as I have been in the past.”

Last year, Langford described himself as “kind of a clothes person” in statements he made to Securities and Exchange Commission investigators, and said last year he asked lobbyist Al LaPierre to help him pay off his debts. He told investigators his longtime friend loaned him about $110,000.

Langford said he didn’t know where LaPierre, 58, got the money, but that he would repay it after he sold some property, according to statements.

“We’ve been friends long enough that if I needed it, it was fine with him,” Langford told the SEC investigators.

Langford, 62, wouldn’t say Tuesday whether he stood by those previous statements.

An SEC lawsuit similar to the indictment allegations said the money was never repaid.

Prosecutors say LaPierre didn’t have the money to help Langford and took out a loan that was repaid by the investment banker, Bill Blount, 55.

Blount’s Montgomery firm allegedly made $7.1 million off risky bond deals with Jefferson County, where Langford was commission president for four years before becoming Birmingham’s mayor.

The bond deals — which funded years of work on a substandard county sewer system — went sour and have helped push surrounding Jefferson County to the brink of filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Langford is accused of telling Wall Street giants JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers that they had to include Blount’s investment banking firm on the deal if they wanted to handle the county’s bond work, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Prosecutors claim Blount paid LaPierre $219,500 in consulting fees for acting as a go-between with Langford.

Langford, a Democrat, has known Blount and LaPierre for years; Blount was an underwriter for VisionLand, a theme park that Langford built with county and other local government funds that crashed financially.

Langford has been known for outside-the-box ideas aimed at trying to grow the city. He announced a longshot bid to bring the 2020 Olympics to Birmingham, even though the city doesn’t even have a major sports franchise. Just last week he gave a $10,000 city consulting contract to a 13-year-old girl who appeared before council members to discuss improving parks.

Langford is only the latest person charged with corruption in the sewer work. Three other commissioners were among more than 20 county officials, contractors and companies convicted on federal charges related to Jefferson County’s sewer rebuilding work.

“There was just a culture of corruption surrounding the project,” U.S. Attorney Alice Martin said. “Many involved in it wanted their piece of the pie.”