TUSCALOOSA, Alabama (Reuters) - A jury found Larry Langford, the mayor of Alabama’s biggest city Birmingham, guilty of charges ranging from bribery to criminal conspiracy on Wednesday in a federal corruption trial.
The trial shed light on alleged corruption at the heart of Jefferson County’s multibillion-dollar sewer debt, which has forced the county to the brink of what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Birmingham is the main city in Jefferson County and Langford, a Democrat, was the head of the county commission when the debt was accumulated. He became mayor in 2007.
Langford was found guilty of on all 60 counts, which included criminal conspiracy and mail and wire fraud. He faces possible life in prison, as well as disbarment from office.
Langford appeared shaken as the verdict was delivered by a jury that had deliberated for less than three hours. He later asserted his innocence and said the reporting of Alabama journalists had swayed the jury against him.
“We all have our trials in life and this too shall pass,” he told reporters, adding that he would appeal the conviction.
“I am not the first person to go to trial for something I did not do,” he said. The court ordered that he step down as mayor and said it would sentence him within 120 days pending the appeal.
At the heart of the trial was the question of whether Langford illegally enriched himself as the county raised money through bond swaps to refinance the massive debt incurred through improvements to its sewer system.
“Did the defendant act willfully with intent to defraud? Yes, he did,” said prosecutor Tamarra Matthews-Johnson, using documents to trace payments of cash, gifts, clothes and jewelry she said Langford received between 2002 and 2007.
“This is no fairy tale. It’s an old story ... It is the one where the politician trades his elected power for personal gain and violates the trust of the public,” Matthews-Johnson said.
She highlighted “secret” side documents that showed attempts Langford and investment banker William Blount made to gain illicit fees from major banks involved in the bond swap deals, including Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and JP Morgan Chase.
Her evidence also appeared to show that JP Morgan, the county’s largest creditor, agreed to pay money above and beyond what was publicly entered in the county record.
In contrast to prosecutors, Langford’s lawyers had presented him as a generous man who worked hard on Jefferson County’s behalf but whose personal finances were a mess because of a weakness for compulsive shopping.
As a result, he was vulnerable to Blount and lobbyist co-conspirator Albert LaPierre, who took advantage of him, they said. Blount and LaPierre have already pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors.
After the verdict, Langford’s wife Melva said he was innocent and was targeted by the U.S. Justice Department because he is a powerful African American in Alabama, a state where blacks were racially oppressed through segregation and prevented from voting until the 1960s.
Prosecutor George Martin, the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the northern district of Alabama, called that charge “ridiculous.”
Additional reporting by Matthew Bigg, editing by