Larry Paul Langford (born March 17, 1948 in Birmingham; died January 8, 2019 in Birmingham) was the Mayor of the City of Birmingham from November 2007 until his conviction on federal bribery and conspiracy charges in October 2009.
Langford previously gained notice as a Birmingham City Councilor (1977 - 1979) and as a four-time elected mayor of Fairfield (1988 to 2002). From 2002 until 2007, he served on the Jefferson County Commission. Until 2006, he was the Commission President and served as Commissioner of Finance and General Services. From 2006 until he became Mayor, he was the county's Commissioner of Health and Human Services.
Langford maintained that he grew up in the Loveman Village housing project in Titusville, where he was raised by his mother, Lillian Nance. He often told a story about her catching him stealing change to buy cookies and subsequently whipping him with the cord from an electric iron. He claimed to have needed treatment at University Hospital, after which he was given a tour of juvenile hall by his stepfather.
Langford attended Parker High School, graduating in January 1965. In February he enlisted in the U. S. Air Force, lying about his age and serving five years. After his 1971 discharge he returned to Birmingham and enrolled at UAB on the G.I. Bill. He completed a bachelor of arts degree in social and behavioral sciences in 1972. While still in school he was hired by WBRC 6's Joe Langston to be one of the region's first black television reporters, and went on to receive several awards for his investigative reports. While working as a reporter with annual earnings of $7,500 he ran up debts of $41,124 and filed for personal bankruptcy.
Langford and his first wife had one son, Ronald.
Birmingham City Council
He was elected to the Birmingham City Council in 1977 and quickly earned notice as the "liveliest and most outspoken" of the council members, as well as the most media-savvy. He routinely briefed reporters before meetings, and then provided the most memorable or controversial quotes, packaged in sound bites for television coverage.1..
In the 1979 Birmingham mayoral election he challenged incumbent Vann and fellow councilmen Richard Arrington, Jr and John Katopodis for the office. During the campaign, Langford called for industrial redevelopment to provide jobs in the city and bashed the city's support for museums such as the Red Mountain Museum and Sloss Furnaces, saying, "at the rate things are going, we are going to be the most culturally-enlightened group of unemployed people you ever laid eyes on.” 2. Arrington cautioned voters that Langford would spend the public's money the way he spent his own.
After losing the race to Arrington, Langford found a job at KAR Products, working from his apartment on Green Springs Avenue. After the Birmingham Post-Herald revealed that Langford had arranged no-bid deals with the Birmingham Parks and Recreation Board, sometimes even duplicating purchase orders, KAR terminated him. By 1982 he had moved to Fairfield, married the former Melva Ferguson, and been hired as a community relations director for Birmingham Budweiser.
In 1988 Langford became the first African American Mayor of Fairfield. He began an aggressive campaign to revitalize the city. He successfully lobbied the legislature to grant his office more power over the Fairfield City Council and won an increase in the city's sales tax, which he used to bail-out Fairfield City Schools. In return he also exercised influence over the supposedly-independent school board.
Langford involved himself in the details of brushing up the city's image, hoping to foster the perception of a "Black Hoover"3.. He leveraged tax revenues to issue bonds for capital projects. He initiated a massive project of street and sidewalk improvements (including painting many sidewalks in Miles College's purple and gold). He railed against intemperence, banning bikinis and Speedos from city-owned pools and firing city employees who failed drug tests. He created a Mayor's Commission on Literacy to improve student performance at Fairfield High School through after-school tutoring and parent education. He also won a lot of support by attacking the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity for its practice of holding closed meetings. And one day he personally chased down two purse snatchers in his truck near Fairfield City Hall. His public crusades for social conservatism and open government won him support outside of Fairfield and gave him a foothold to envision bigger regional projects.
From his time in Fairfield, Langford was most known for initiating cooperation between 11 Jefferson County municipalities which formed the West Jefferson Amusement Authority to finance construction and operate the $60 million Visionland amusement park, built in Bessemer in 1998. Langford took a personal stake in the management of the park, insisting on well-groomed, courteous employees and installing a sculpture of himself near the entrance. He pushed through the installation of a costly animatronic dinosaur exhibit which was left exposed to the weather in an inconvenient location, flopping miserably. Without consulting the park's board of directors (which rarely met) he replaced general manager Frank Thompson with former security director Rob Langford (no relation).
A year after the park opened, Langford had the authority return to the bond market for a $90 million refinance that was supposed to provide $25 million for new construction. Instead much of the money was used to cover operational costs. This fact was concealed as Langford delayed the release of audits. The park continually struggled to draw crowds and, with over $100 million in unpaid debts to lenders, vendors and suppliers, it declared Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2002. It was sold for $5.25 million and reopened under private management as "Alabama Adventure". Despite the financial failures of the park when it was publicly owned and the losses suffered by its public and private investors, Langford continues to claim credit for its existence.
Langford was elected as mayor of Fairfield four times, but left office in November 2002, midway through his fourth term, after being elected to the Jefferson County Commission in June. Fairfield's own investments in the park, in school construction and programs, and in the Fairfield Civic Center, along with drops in sales tax revenues from stores relocating outside the city, brought the city close to bankruptcy after Langford left office. The city escaped by selling the high school back to the school board (using capital funds made available through Jefferson County's 1-cent sales tax, proposed by Langford after he joined the Commission).
Jefferson County Commission
Langford was elected to the Jefferson County Commission by defeating incumbent Jeff Germany in 2002. He was elected President of the Commission by its members shortly thereafter. He proposed his 1-cent sales tax for school construction plan in 2005, relying on consensus he had built with fellow commissioner Mary Buckelew.
As Commissioner of Health and Human Services, Langford incorporated the Jefferson Metropolitan Health Care Authority and proposed a $93 renovation of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, hoping to transform the public institution into a health care magnet. His authority operated without adequate financial controls and fell apart after he left the commission presidency. Nearly $470,000 in unsupported spending was reported by accountants during the four years the authority was active.
As Commissioner of Finance, Langford led the Commission through a series of complex bond swaps aimed at reducing the County's debt service through lower interest rates. Critics have noted that the advisors hired to execute the swaps have been paid as much or more in fees as they proposed to save the county in payments. Some of Langford's activities regarding those deals are the subject of an investigation by the United States Security and Exchange Commission (SEC). Specifically two loans made to Langford from lobbyist Al LaPierre. At the same time, LaPierre was invoicing Bill Blount for "services rendered regarding Jefferson County" and Blount's investment firm was awarded several bond contracts from the Jefferson County Commission. Langford has refused to answer questions regarding those transactions during questioning in a Miami federal court.
Following the 2006 general election the Republican majority in the Commission installed Bettye Fine Collins as Commission President, leaving Langford and fellow Democrat Shelia Smoot as a voting minority.
After Langford was sworn in as the Mayor of Birmingham, the Commission set a special election for February 2008 to fill his unexpired term. On November 21, 2007 Governor Bob Riley appointed George Bowman to the seat. Meanwhile the Jefferson County Board of Elections scheduled a special election on February 5 which was won, unofficially, by William Bell. Certification of the election results was halted by the Alabama Supreme Court pending legal resolution of the issues involved in replacing Langford.
2007 Birmingham mayoral campaign
In June 2007 Langford announced that he would run for Mayor of Birmingham in the October election with the slogan "Let's Do Something." During the campaign Langford touted his long record of initiatives and promised action to move the city forward. In order to qualify for the election, he signed a 6-month lease for a loft apartment in the Blach's building on 20th Street North on June 4. He registered as a Birmingham voter on June 7.
He dismissed reports about ongoing investigations of his role in Jefferson County's financial crisis, saying that the reports were political ploys staged by his enemies. He also dismissed scrutiny into the operations of Computer Help for Kids, a charity he helped to found which received large contributions from Fairfield and Jefferson County.
Results from the October 9 election gave Langford 26,230 of 52,120 votes cast, 171 more than he needed to avoid a run-off with challenger Patrick Cooper. After the election was certified, Cooper filed suit claiming that Langford failed to establish residency in Birmingham as required by state law. Judge Allwin Horn dismissed the suit on November 26, saying that legal residence was a matter of intent. Cooper dropped his appeal and conceded the election on December 17.
Meanwhile, Langford tapped former Alabama Supreme Court justice Ralph Cook Jr and Alabama Power CEO Charles McCrary to lead his transition team and hired Deborah Vance to serve as his chief of staff. He began meeting immediately with various regional leaders and with Governor Bob Riley, specifically to outline his plans for mass transit and a domed stadium in Birmingham. He also announced a plan to provide 15,000 laptop computers to 1st through 8th graders at Birmingham City Schools with help from John Katopodis and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation.
Mayor of Birmingham
Langford was sworn in as mayor by Judge U. W. Clemon in an afternoon ceremony at Boutwell Auditorium on Tuesday November 13, 2007. He made several changes to his staff on the same day. In addition to new Birmingham Chief of Police A. C. Roper, Langford dismissed Fire Chief Carl Harper, city attorney Tamara Johnson, spokesman Ed Davis, city auditor Etta Dunning, public works director Stephen Fancher, and Birmingham Board of Education liaison Gwen Welch. Newly-appointed administrators include Ivor Brooks as fire chief, and Rickey Kennedy as director of public works.
Prior to his first City Council meeting, Langford distributed sealed copies to the council members of a proposed Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance to raise sales taxes and business license fees in order to finance a $500 bond issue. The borrowed money would pay for public transit, a domed stadium, laptops for school children, and $1 million in discretionary funds for each council district. The copies were marked "confidential", with Langford asking the councilors to return their comments privately before the plan was made public. A copy of the 1-page summary was provided to the News after legal advisor J. Richmond Pearson responded that the document was a public record.
On April 22, 2008 Langford issued a proclamation on city letterhead proclaiming April 25, 2008 to be "It's Time to Pray" in the City of Birmingham. He called upon "all Bishops, Priests, Pastors, Ministers and all of our citizens of various denominations and creeds" to join him in donning burlap sacks and having their heads smeared with ashes during a prayer rally at Boutwell Auditorium. The display, part of his Plan 10/30 series of anti-crime rallies, was intended to show humility and restore God's favor to a city wracked with violence. Anticipating complaints from defenders of the 1st amendment's establishment clause, Langford stated that "the Constitution of the United States calls for a separation of church and state - it never said anything about a separation of church from state.” (Underwood - Apr. 22, 2008)
In early 2009 the City Council placed a moratorium on approving funds for new projects until the city's revenue statements were available. Langford's impatience with what he saw as needless delays reached a peak on March 10, when he distributed flyers and signs illustrating a "Cycle of Stupidity" which was holding the city back from progress as he envisioned it.
|Mayor of Fairfield
|Jefferson County Commission District 1
|Jefferson County Commission president
Bettye Fine Collins
|Mayor of Birmingham
Carole Smitherman (acting)
Federal corruption trial
On April 30, 2008 attorneys working for the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil suit in federal court accusing Langford of violating United States securities laws in his dealings with Al LaPierre and William B. Blount while on the County Commission. The suit claims that Langford accepted more than $150,000 in money and benefits from the two in exchange for steering the county's bond business to Blount's firm.
On December 1 Langford was arrested at his office at Birmingham Budweiser by FBI agents. The 101-count indictment accused him of accepting bribes from LaPierre and Blount in June 2003, while serving as president of the County Commission. He is also accused of engaging in a conspiracy with the other defendants to enable and conceal the alleged bribes. Additional counts allege that mail and wire fraud were committed in the furtherance of the conspiracy and that Langford falsified his income tax returns.
Langford pleaded not guilty and was released on a $50,000 bond and required to stay within the Northern Judicial District of Alabama. His trial was postponed to August 25, 2009 to give his attorneys enough time to review evidence. In March 2009 an official with the Environmental Protection Agency placed Langford's name on the "Excluded Parties List", meaning that he is barred from conducting official business with federal agencies. The City Council is considering his request to allow department heads to sign contracts with federal agencies on behalf of the city. The trial was postponed again to October 19 and moved to Tuscaloosa after both LaPierre and Blount made plea deals with prosecutors. Blount was pardoned by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles in January 2017.
The defense rested its case on October 27 and closing arguments were made the next day. That afternoon the jury found him guilty on all 60 counts. With the conviction, he was disqualified to hold the office of Mayor and Council President Carole Smitherman succeeded him on an interim basis. He returned to teaching Bible study classes at the Fairfield Civic Center as he awaited sentencing. On March 5, 2010 Coogler sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
Langford was assigned to the Federal Correctional Institution Ashland in Eastern Kentucky by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He reported on April 7, 2010 and was assigned inmate number 27349. On entering prison he said he expected to spend the remainder of his life behind bars and told his family not to bother visiting and to "just pretend that I'm dead now".5
Interviewed by John Archibald in December 2010, Langford maintained his innocence and said that he was teaching classes in writing, social studies, science and public speaking, and also leading Bible studies. Fellow inmates and prison workers call him "Mayor". Unwilling to eat prison food, he used the $25 a month he was allowed to spend on commissary items such as honey buns, candy and Tang. He had been contacted by attorneys asking him to testify against Milton McGregor in his electronic bingo case, but refused.
In 2015 Langford was transferred to the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky for treatment of several conditions, including a newly-discovered malignancy. His family and other supporters have petitioned for "compassionate release" from prison officials and also for a commutation of his sentence from Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In November 2018 the Bureau of Prisons issued a report that found that Langford, "has a history of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and and emphysema. pulmonary hypertension, right-heart failure, sickle-cell trait, plantar fascial fibromatosis, bursitis, esophageal reflux, dysphagia, hypertension, sensorineural hearing loss, pterygium and anemia. He was issued an oxygen concentrator and nebulizer and ambulates with the use of a wheelchair," but also determined that, "his release at this time would minimize the severity of his offense," and thereby, "pose a danger to the safety of the community," as defined by law.
On Christmas Day, members of Langford's family visited him with the expectation that his death was imminent. Well-wishers in Fairfield gathered at the Fairfield Community Center to pray for his release. Current Mayor Randall Woodfin wrote to President Trump on December 26 to request consideration of early release under the First Step Act. Judge Scott Coogler ordered on December 28 that his sentence be reduced to time served, with 36 months of supervised release under home confinement with an ankle monitor. He was moved to a room at Princeton Baptist Medical Center on the evening of December 29.
Langford died in his hospital room on January 8. A public viewing was held at the Bill Harris Arena on January 13 and a funeral mass was held at St Mary’s Catholic Church on January 14. Langford was buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
Langford's personal finances have come under scrutiny several times as questions arose about deals that he initiated while holding public office, personal loans made to him by figures involved in those deals, contributions to charities controlled by him or his associates, and the nature of his employment outside of office.
Some of the most serious allegations were outlined in the civil suit filed by the SEC. They claim that he received over $150,000 in personal loans from a lobbyist involved in advising Jefferson County on bond-swap deals. The loans were poorly documented and have not been repaid. A 2.1-acre parcel in Hoover that Langford claimed to have used as collateral for the loans is actually held by CMNLL Inc, a group in which Langford was involved, though he has not himself made payments toward the purchase or property tax.
Local journalists also questioned the nature of his work as a public relations director for Birmingham Budweiser, and whether he has used his political influence to attract donations to a number of charities he controls, and to drive sales for 5Linx, a marketer of telephone systems for which he acted as an independent agent.
During his federal corruption trial, it was revealed that Langford's credit score was 485 when he applied for a personal loan from Colonial Bank. Officials from the Internal Revenue Service testified that he still owed more than $77,000 in back taxes.
Electronic bingo winnings
In September and October 2009 three women filed lawsuits alleging that the VictoryLand bingo parlor in Shorter (Macon County) and Greenetrack bingo parlor in Eutaw (Greene County) committed fraud by steering Langford to specific electronic bingo machines that were rigged to pay out large jackpots. Both establishments are owned by Milton McGregor, a long-time friend and political supporter of Langford. As Mayor of Birmingham, Langford lobbied for public support of casino gambling and suggested locating a proposed domed stadium on land McGregor owned near his Birmingham Race Course.
Later the suits were amended with the release of Alabama Department of Revenue records showing the Langford reported more than $1.5 million in winnings between 2006 and 2008. He claimed more than 555 jackpots ranging from $1,200 to $27,000 over that period. On one single night (February 9, 2008) he reported hitting 36 jackpots, winning $96,093.
After the tax records were released, Langford told a Birmingham News reporter that he did not remember ever winning so many jackpots and that "over the years" he had lost much more than he won.4 An earlier suit, filed in 2007 made similar claims about rigged machines. Though unresolved, that suit did produce an affadavit from a VictoryLand employee attesting to manipulation of machines to pay out for Langford and others.
- Friedman, Richard (February __, 1979) "Larry Langford and the media massage" The Birmingham News - via Birmingham Rewound
- Westlake-Kenny, Barbara (Fall 1997) "Alumni Spotlight: Larry P. Langford, B.A." UAB Magazine. Vol. 17, No. 4
- "Regaining Trust." (November 12, 2002) The Birmingham News, page 8-A.
- Wright, Barnett. (April 23, 2006) "Langford's full of ideas, both big and small." The Birmingham News
- Wright, Barnett (June 3, 2007) "Langford launches run for mayor." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (September 21, 2007) "Idea man Langford a champion for change." The Birmingham News
- Whitmire, Kyle (October 4, 2007) "Larry Langford's Greatest Hits." Birmingham Weekly
- Blackledge, Victor (November 6, 2007) "SEC eyes possible link in work, loans to Langford." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (November 15, 2007) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford assembles team, keeps many Kincaid staffers." The Birmingham News
- Velasco, Eric (November 27, 2007) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford is a legal resident, can remain in office, judge rules" The Birmingham News
- Wright, Barnett (December 18, 2007) "SEC wants to force Larry Langford, Bill Blount to testify in Jefferson County bond swap deals." The Birmingham News
- Wolfson, Hannah (December 19, 2007) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford believes he's the target of a federal criminal investigation." The Birmingham News
- Archibald, John (January 6, 2008) "Smoke or worse wafts from SEC." The Birmingham News
- Underwood, M. (April 22, 2008) "Leapin' Larry's Prayer Proclamation" Birmingham Weekly
- Blackledge, Brett (April 30, 2008) "SEC files civil complaint against Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford, banker and lobbyist." The Birmingham News
- Blackledge, Brett J. (May 29, 2008) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford received interest in property without investing money, later used land for collateral." The Birmingham News
- Reeves, Jay (August 10, 2008) "Visions of Birmingham's mayor: Idea guy or 'LaLa'?". Associated Press
- Bryant, Joseph D. (November 9, 2008) "A year later, Langford puts `my record against anybody'." The Birmingham News
- Whitmire, Kyle (November 20, 2008) "Larry Langford: The Year in Review." Birmingham Weekly
- Walton, Val (December 1, 2008) "Feds unseal 101-count indictment charging Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford, William Blount and Al LaPierre." The Birmingham News
- Spencer, Tom (December 2, 2008) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford full of contrasts." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (April 5, 2009) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford banned from signing federal documents, claims unfair treatment." The Birmingham News
- Morton, Jason (October 9, 2009) "Lawsuit claims Greenetrack rigged machines." Tuscaloosa News
- Whitmire, Kyle (October 14, 2009) "The Life and Crimes of Larry Langford" Birmingham Weekly
- Bryant, Joseph D. (December 8, 2009) "Larry Langford says he's moved on, has no regrets." The Birmingham News
- Dean, Chuck (March 3, 2010) "Larry Langford tax returns show 555 jackpots hit playing electronic bingo." The Birmingham News
- Taibbi, Matt (March 31, 2010) "Looting Main Street: How the nation's biggest banks are ripping off American cities with the same predatory deals that brought down Greece." Rolling Stone
- Blinder, Alan (April 6, 2010) "Larry Langford, one last time" The Crimson White
- Archibald, John (December 12, 2010) "Langford: 'Everybody here calls me mayor'." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (May 1, 2015) "'Recently identified malignancy' and other issues: Family of former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford give details on his health ." The Birmingham News
- Johnson, Roy S. (December 25, 2018) "Former Birmingham mayor Larry Langford in critical condition, denied compassionate release." The Birmingham News
- Koplowitz, Howard (December 26, 2018) "Fairfield residents pray for Larry Langford’s release." The Birmingham News
- Johnson, Roy S. (December 28, 2018) "Larry Langford will be freed after sentence reduction." The Birmingham News
- Johnson, Roy S. (December 30, 2018) "Larry Langford is home, arrives at Birmingham hospital Saturday night." The Birmingham News
- "Former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford has passed away." (January 8, 2019) WBRC.com
- "Larry Langford, a charismatic politician who shaped Birmingham, dies at 72." (January 8, 2019) The Birmingham News
- Archibald, John (January 9, 2019) "Larry Langford had feet of clay, head in the stars." The Birmingham News
- Johnson, Roy S. (January 9, 2019) "Johnson: I never met Larry Langford, but wish I had." The Birmingham News
- Whitmire, Kyle (January 9, 2019) "The calamitous rise and fall of Larry Langford." The Birmingham News
- Johnson, Roy S. (January 14, 2019) "'Mayor's mayor' Larry Langford laid to rest with spiritual, defiant tributes." The Birmingham News
- Wright, Barnett (January 17, 2019) "How Larry Langford became a once-in-a-lifetime politician." The Birmingham Times