Did Larry Langford bet Birmingham's future on Wall Street scheme?
Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford is charged with money laundering and bribery. No-bid bond financing schemes have led to billions of lost taxpayer dollars across the US.
Now on trial in US District Court in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on 60 counts of money laundering and bribery charges, Mr. Langford is at the center of a spectacular scandal where, prosecutors say, a popular mayor whose motto is ‚ÄúDo something!‚ÄĚ gambled a city‚Äôs future on a risky Wall Street scheme, all while taking bribes in the form of cash, Rolex watches, and designer clothes.
Langford‚Äôs trial is sure to illuminate whether a gung-ho investment atmosphere played into small-time municipal corruption, only to explode into what could become the largest municipal bankruptcy ever, dwarfing the 1994 default of California's Orange County.
But behind the details of Langford‚Äôs personal and political life lies a surprising fact: Across the US, billions of dollars have been lost in similarly risky municipal bond deals, leaving US taxpayers on the hook.
‚ÄúBringing justice where fraud has occurred is a very important component to bringing back a culture of trust on which financial markets operate, and that‚Äôs why the Larry Langford trial is important,‚ÄĚ says Robert Brooks, an economist at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. ‚ÄúIf you find transactions being done [by elected officials] with an effort to be opaque ... there‚Äôs good reason to wonder why.‚ÄĚ
Justice Department investigations
The US Justice Department is investigating half a dozen former Wall Street investment bankers and scouring municipal bond deals from Florida to California, looking for more instances where taxpayers were essentially swindled by secretive gambling on the $2.8 trillion municipal bond market.
In the Langford case, ‚ÄúYou basically had local officials setting terms, and the banks didn‚Äôt have a problem with that,‚ÄĚ says Joe Adams, research coordinator at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.
Langford‚Äôs alleged scheme involved a new fleet of financial instruments that hundreds of other cities and counties across the US have also utilized.
Those new instruments ‚Äď which include derivatives and interest-rate swaps ‚Äď came on the scene as municipal governments started making no-bid agreements with bankers behind closed doors, says Mr. Brooks at the University of Alabama.
As the credit crisis undermined many of those deals, public borrowers began paying billions of dollars to escape the contracts.
Alabama‚Äôs unique Constitution, which leaves county government basically unregulated, has created a system ‚Äúthat‚Äôs structurally designed for corruption,‚ÄĚ says Mr. Adams. But the Langford case may indicate that wherever the new bond financing deals involve collusion and corruption, the results can be dire.
Specifically, the refinancing that Langford structured for Jefferson County involved interest-rate swaps, which JPMorgan Chase bankers said could reduce the county‚Äôs interest costs. (In SEC testimony last year, Langford, who attended Harvard‚Äôs Kennedy School of Government in 2000, said he couldn‚Äôt tell a bond swap adviser from a rubber band.)
Instead, rates skyrocketed after ratings for the county‚Äôs bond insurers fell during last year‚Äôs credit crisis. Debt payments for the county‚Äôs sewer system ballooned to $460 million a year ‚Äď twice the annual revenues of the system.
A former TV news anchor, Langford had emerged as a pragmatic pro-business visionary by the time he became president of the Jefferson County Commission in 2002.
Trusted by both the city‚Äôs majority black community and suburban whites, Langford pushed a vision that sleepy Birmingham could become ‚Äúthe best ‚ÄėNew South‚Äô city in the nation.‚ÄĚ (He was easily elected mayor of Birmingham in 2007 and has a lot of political support even today.)
As county president in 2003 and 2004, Langford, according to prosecutors, received lavish gifts ‚Äď including cash, cars, and fancy shoes ‚Äď from Bill Blount, a former Democratic Party state chairman turned investment banker.
In return, Langford insisted that Wall Street banks do business directly with Mr. Blount, who racked up more than $7 million in fees from the Jefferson County bond deals, according to testimony.
The two men would travel to New York and spend more time in the city‚Äôs shopping district than on Wall Street, Blount said in testimony this week. Langford would put clothes on the counter and Blount would pay with a credit card.
‚ÄúThank you,‚ÄĚ Langford always said, according to testimony.
The Birmingham Weekly has continuous coverage of the trial, including a Live Blog feature here.
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