Wade on Birmingham

Archive for October, 2009

Art in Avondale Park moved to Sunday

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Art in Avondale Park

The 7th annual Art in Avondale Park will take place Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the park. [map]

The community festival was scheduled to take place today, but was moved Friday because of the rainy forecast.

The free event includes more than 70 artists, plus performances by musicians, belly dancers and Irish step dancers; children’s area with pony rides; and food/drink vendors. Noted Alabama folk artist Lonnie Holley will lead a sand sculpting demonstration.

For more information, visit artinavondalepark.org.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

This is Halloween, this is Halloween,
Pumpkins scream in the dead of night.

This is Halloween, everybody make a scene,
Trick or treat till the neighbors gonna die of fright.
It’s our town, everybody scream
In this town of Halloween.

— “This Is Halloween,” from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (affiiliate link)

birmingham renewed: exorcising ghosts

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Are we haunted? Must
we fear those who would corrupt
this town for their gain?

• • •

Read more haiku.

Carole Smitherman becomes Birmingham’s first female mayor

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Another Alabamian, Regina Benjamin, wins Senate confirmation as surgeon general

Video: Interim mayor Carole Smitherman promises transparency

With Larry Langford’s automatic removal from office for his federal conviction, Birmingham city council president Carole Smitherman became the interim mayor, making her the first woman to hold the city’s highest office in its 138-year history.

Smitherman, an attorney, ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2003 and 2007. She was the first black woman in Alabama to serve as circuit court judge.

Her term as mayor may be short lived. The newly elected council takes charge Nov. 24, at which point it can select her or someone else as council president/interim mayor. Smitherman has not announced whether she’ll run in the special election for mayor, which will be held within the next 90 days or so.

She released this statement Wednesday, shortly after Langford’s conviction:

It is with a heavy heart that I assume the duties of acting mayor. This is a sad day for my friend, Larry Langford, his family, our city and the state.

Birmingham is a great city known for her ability to use her resources and her people to rise above adversity. Birmingham will prevail. In this time of tribulation, it is imperative that the leadership of this City stands united and ready to deal with our challenges. We must serve the people who elected us and depend upon us.

Tomorrow morning, I will begin meeting with the executive staff of the Mayor’s Office. At 10:00 a.m., we will hold a press conference in Council Chambers at City Hall. I am asking that all my fellow city councilors join me. Tomorrow afternoon, I will meet with other city employees as we plan a seamless transition.

Tonight, I will attend church with my family and visit with my friend, Larry Langford. Tomorrow we will begin the process of moving the city forward.

Thursday, she promised to investigate city finances but also to continue Langford’s projects. She told the media:

“I am deeply aware that you have not elected me as mayor by your ballots, but I fervently hope that you will elect me with your prayers. I did not seek this responsibility, but I will not be intimidated by it.”

Also, this week saw another Alabamian on the rise.

Mobile’s Regina Benjamin was confirmed Thursday by the Senate as the next surgeon general. Sen. Jeff Sessions said in a statement, “The American people will undoubtedly benefit from her knowledge and unwavering dedication to improving the public’s health and wellness.” [See “10 things you didn’t know about surgeon general nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin.”]

birmingham renewed: baby steps

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Who we are as a
city comes not from who leads
but who does the work.

• • •

Read more haiku.

Your guide to the 2009 Magic City Classic

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Magic City Classic

What: Only Birmingham’s biggest annual sports event, a football showdown between two historically black colleges, the Alabama State Hornets vs. the Alabama A&M Bulldogs. Well, some football: It’s also a parade, battle of the bands, series of parties and events and reunions and fun. Football somewhat optional.

Where/when: The game itself is at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Legion Field. Tickets are $20 to $25 in advance, $30 to $35 on game day.

Other Classic-related events can be found on Urbanham’s calendar.

Weather: Saturday high, 57, with 70 percent chance of rain in the morning, clearing by kickoff.

Bottom line: With 30 sponsors, the event has brought in more than $800,000, a jump of 5 percent over 2008. That’s no small feat in a down economy. The event reportedly brings in $15.9 million into the local economy.

More info:

Review: Chris Thile’s Classical Jam with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Chris Thile

Chris Thile, February 2008

Review at a glance: Chris Thile brought fire and spunk to his performance with a game Alabama Symphony Orchestra, both as mandolin player and classical composer.

• • •

When bluegrass trio Nickel Creek announced in 2006 that it was calling it quits, I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to see such magic again. But Birmingham has had two opportunities in the past 5 days to catch its members.

Sara Watkins played at Vulcan AfterTunes on Sunday. And this evening, accomplished mandolin player and singer Chris Thile returned to town to perform with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

The event took place before a nearly full Jemison Concert Hall at the Alys Stephens Center.

Part-Bach, part-Bartók and part-Radiohead, the symphony accompanied Thile on several numbers but took on Bartók without the headliner. Thile and conductor Justin Brown took time to banter, with each other and with the audience, on several occasions. Stuffy, this was not.

Thile radiated enthusiasm while playing flawlessly; his vocals, however, were merely OK. But he took time to explain the selections for the evening, and how the mandolin makes for a fitting substitute for the violin (the tuning is identical, but the mandolin has frets and no sustained notes).

A special treat was the Alabama premiere of Thile’s concerto, Mandolin Concerto (Ad astra per alas porci). (The Latin translates to “To the stars on the wings of a pig.”) Six orchestras, including the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, commissioned the piece.

On numbers handled by the symphony itself, Thile didn’t go backstage as most performers do; instead, he sat himself on the steps leading up to the stage to enjoy the performance. When the symphony exited for Thile’s solo numbers, Brown returned the favor and sat down to listen.

The highlight was Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins. The Mandolin Concerto was also engaging and intriguing, showing Thile’s surprising range as a composer. Brown remarked beforehand that it may have been his first time as a conductor to perform a work by a composer who also sat in as a soloist.

For the encore, Thile and the symphony performed another Radiohead number.

And while orchestras at one point tried to reach the young people with all Zeppelin or Stones concerts, this collaboration felt like the real deal. Thile was generous in his praise of the orchestra and in his performance. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra would do well to schedule more mashups with talented artists.

• • •

Also:

  • “Creek rising,” my review of Nickel Creek’s 2005 performance at the Alabama Theatre
  • Thile talks with Birmingham Magazine | Birmingham News | WBHM (listen to audio clip below)

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  • Denver Post calls Mandolin Concerto a “classic” | more on the concerto
  • Birmingham News concert review
  • Alabama Symphony Orchestra preview

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Photo by michale / CC BY 2.0

The aftermath of the Langford administration

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

What happens to Jefferson County and Birmingham after a leader is convicted of bribery?

The boarded-up windows,
The hustlers and thieves,
While my brother’s down on his knees.

My city of ruins.
My city of ruins.

Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up!

— “My City of Ruins,” Bruce Springsteen

Like most Southern places, Birmingham has seen its fair share of colorful officials. And former mayor Larry Langford never failed to make waves with his unapologetic brand of leadership during his 32 years as a politician.

Larry LangfordBut Wednesday, his career ended not with a triumphant exit from office but the bang of a judge’s gavel. Langford was convicted in federal court in Tuscaloosa for bribery, money laundering, fraud and conspiracy, facing up to 805 years in prison for his crimes.

His dwindling base of supporters no doubt found the decision questionable. His vocal opposition cheered at the demise of the reign and the man.

But what is there to cheer?

• Langford’s misdeeds as Jefferson County Commission president all but destroyed what little trust residents had in that body of governance to spend judiciously and to fix the ailing sewer system. The county is billions of dollars in debt in a virtual bankruptcy, and no one has stepped forward with a clear solution on how to stop the bleeding, start the repayments.

• Birmingham must elect a new mayor in just 45 days. Given that voter turnout has dropped to 20 percent or less, given that candidates qualify with very few requirements, it’s easy to see how another problematic pol could end up at the reins.

• The city budget is a mess, requiring acting mayor Carole Smitherman to audit the books thoroughly. Langford did indeed meet his promise to push through ideas to better Birmingham, ideas both simple (paving streets, cleaning up neighborhoods) and outrageous (recruiting the 2020 Olympics, hiring a 13-year-old contractor for $10,000). (Full list of Langford’s initiatives from Bhamwiki.) But he showed little regard for answering questions on proper budget management even in a struggling economy.

Hubris propelled Langford far in his career, and hubris ultimately brought him down. He acted as if other opinions, especially contradictory ones, had zero merit. He bullied when he could have collaborated. He preached humility before God, then proceeded to use his office (then and now) as though anointed with divine power.

Langford alone wasn’t responsible for these tragic results. Who else can we blame?

• Voters, sadly, got the government they deserved. In 2007, Langford’s woes — legal and financial — were publicized during the mayoral election, yet he still won on the first ballot beating nine opponents, including the incumbent.

• His elected colleagues. The Birmingham city council rarely challenged the soundness of his math or his ideas during the last 2 years. His fellow county commissioners ended up entangling themselves in similar criminal activities only to find themselves convicted as well.

• The media. Did the Birmingham News fail in its mission to hold City Hall accountable? Were its editors scared that Langford would play the race card? How did a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper flinch before the mayor had even been sworn in?

Oddly enough, Langford railed against the media after the verdict. Yet when his lawyers asked for a change of venue to get away from Birmingham and possible media contamination of the jury, Langford got his wish. The jury selected was mostly unaware of Langford’s arrest and media attention. Judge Scott Coogler reminded jurors to stay away from newspapers, TV reports and even blogs and tweets regarding the case.

In short, Langford got the trial he wanted, just not the verdict.

He’ll be in jail by early 2010. But the rest of us will remain in a prison of Langford’s misguided design.

Jefferson County, free of Langford’s grip for 2 years, will spend the next 10 years trying to undo the whole sordid mess. The bankruptcy will be the largest in U.S. history, and each one of us will pay dearly for his crimes. Fundamentally, the commission itself remains an odd body, one without a county manager or incentive to fix itself. It just sits there, waiting for a solution to fall from the sky. No such solution is coming, though.

And the City of Birmingham started anew today, with Smitherman meeting with employees and charting a course for her short tenure as mayor. But who will come forward to run this time? The names include Smitherman, runner-up from 2007 attorney Patrick Cooper, previous mayor Bernard Kincaid, county commissioner (and previous mayoral candidate) William Bell and even former four-term mayor Richard Arrington.

The city desperately needs a rare combination of sober stewardship and passionate drive at the helm. We need someone who works with the council, who plays nice with other elected officials, who works on behalf of merchants and residents. That next mayor must make extremely difficult decisions about how to keep crime on the decline, economic development on the rise and the quality of life as an imperative — all with a soon-to-be-revealed accurate budget.

Birmingham has seen its share of dark days, and make no mistake, Wednesday was among its darkest. The fall of a leader reflects not only on him but the good people who put him there and the city he helped divide.

Only together can push Birmingham from the city of perpetual promise to one of real hope and accomplishment and unity.

• • •

Also:

Complete coverage: The trial of Larry Langford from Wade on Birmingham.

Meet more of Birmingham’s Biggest Crooks.

Your thoughts on who should lead Birmingham and what happens next are welcome below.

the horizon within reach

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

A new day, a new
chance to clear out old tactics
and lift Birmingham.

• • •

Read more haiku.

political thievery

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

A crook stole more than
just the county’s wealth. He stole
our trust and goodwill.

• • •

Read more haiku.

BREAKING: Birmingham mayor Larry Langford guilty of bribery, fraud, conspiracy

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Jury deliberated less than 2 hours; mayor loses office by conviction

Birmingham Alabama mayor Larry Langford

In the Tuscaloosa federal courthouse, Birmingham mayor Larry Langford was found guilty on all 60 counts of of bribery, money laundering, fraud and conspiracy. The jury deliberated less than 2 hours this afternoon before returning a verdict.

Wade on Birmingham - The trial of Larry LangfordThe conviction automatically removes Langford from office. Council president Carole Smitherman becomes acting mayor until a special election is held. Valerie Abbott becomes acting council president.

Judge Scott Coogler set Langford’s forfeiture at $241,843; sentencing will take place in early 2010, in 90 to 120 days. Langford, who remains free until then, faces up to 805 years in prison.

Following the trial, Langford said he plans to appeal, adding “We all have our trials, this too will pass.”

Video: Langford chastises Birmingham media after the verdict (3 min.)

While Langford served on the Jefferson County Commission, Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount paid Langford with about $236,000 in cash, jewelry and clothes, sometimes using lobbyist Al LaPierre as a middleman. Blount and LaPierre, who were indicted with Langford, pleaded guilty earlier this year.

Langford, in turn, steered millions of dollars worth of county bond business to Blount’s firm, Blount Parrish. The three passed off the transactions as loans, creating false promissory notes to cover their tracks.

The trial was originally slated for Aug. 31, until Langford’s attorneys successfully petitioned for a change of venue from Birmingham. The next available date in Tuscaloosa was Oct. 19, and the trial has lasted 8 days. Langford was arrested in December 2008.

Langford becomes the fourth county commissioner convicted of sewer-related finances. The others were Mary Buckelew, Chris McNair and Gary White. (A fifth commissioner, Jeff Germany, was convicted of misapplying funds and conspiracy.)

He began as a reporter for WBRC-TV 6, but turned to politics after his election to the Birmingham city council in 1977. He went on to become mayor of Fairfield in 1988, where he pushed for regional cooperation to open the Visionland amusement park (now Alabama Adventure).

Langford started his service on the Jefferson County commission in 2002, and soon became commission president. He entered office with the county already $1 billion in debt in sewer-related bills.

In 2007, he became mayor of Birmingham. He also worked as public relations director for Birmingham Budweiser. (Full bio at BhamWiki.)

His conviction ends his 32-year political career.

Video: Langford’s media conference after the verdict (20 min.)

• • •

What do you think of the verdict? Birmingham’s future? Share your thoughts in the comments, please.

• • •

Complete coverage: The trial of Larry Langford from Wade on Birmingham.

Follow @LLtrial on Twitter for continuous media updates.

Wade on Birmingham - Birmingham's Biggest Crooks - RSS feedSubscribe to the RSS feed for daily coverage of Larry Langford’s trial from Wade on Birmingham.

Illustration by Herman Henderson

Larry Langford trial, Day 8: Coat of many dollars

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Wade on Birmingham - The trial of Larry LangfordOngoing coverage of Birmingham mayor Larry Langford on trial in Tuscaloosa for bribery.

Highlights: Attorneys made their closing arguments this morning. The prosecution said that Bill Blount bribed Langford with $236,000 in cash, clothing and jewelry for Jefferson County’s bond business.

The defense said that Blount took advantage of Langford’s generous nature and shopping addiction. Defense attorney Michael Rasmussen donned a suit jacket from a Remon’s bag covered in dollars, calling Blount the $7 million man, then broke off crumbs from a piece of bread to illustrate Langford’s cut.

Two alternate jurors were released.

The jury began deliberations shortly after 2 p.m.

Update: Jury returned a verdict of guilty on all 60 counts after deliberating for less than 2 hours.

Quote of the day: “He is a brilliant politician, but he can’t control his spending.” — Rasmussen, on his client Langford

“That badge you’re wearing says ‘juror,’ not ‘born yesterday.'” — Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamarra Matthews Johnson, to the jurors

Next: Verdict, hung jury or mistrial. It’s anyone’s guess.

• • •

Complete coverage: The trial of Larry Langford from Wade on Birmingham.

Follow @LLtrial on Twitter for continuous media updates.

Wade on Birmingham - Birmingham's Biggest Crooks - RSS feedSubscribe to the RSS feed for daily coverage of Larry Langford’s trial from Wade on Birmingham.

Larry Langford trial, Day 7: Prosecution rests, defense rests

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Wade on Birmingham - The trial of Larry LangfordOngoing coverage of Birmingham mayor Larry Langford on trial in Tuscaloosa for bribery.

Highlights: The prosecution wrapped its case with testimony from Joe Elliot, an auditor with the Internal Revenue Service. From 2003 to 2005, Langford had about $226,000 in unreported taxable income, including cash, clothes and jewelry, Elliot said. That led to almost $77,000 in taxes owed by Langford to the government.

The defense called six witnesses, including one character witness, before resting today. Langford did not take the stand.

FBI agent Tom Mayhall said testified that Bill Blount said during his interview that Langford never asked Blount to buy him anything. Cross examination of Mayhall revealed that Blount said that Langford said he wanted a tailored suit for Oxxford Clothes.

Quote of the day: It’s in God’s hands now.” — Larry Langford

Homework: “Did Larry Langford bet Birmingham’s future on Wall Street scheme?” from the Christian Science Monitor

Alabama’s unique Constitution, which leaves county government basically unregulated, has created a system “that’s structurally designed for corruption,” 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.

Next: Closing arguments on Wednesday morning.

• • •

Complete coverage: The trial of Larry Langford from Wade on Birmingham.

Follow @LLtrial on Twitter for continuous media updates.

Wade on Birmingham - Birmingham's Biggest Crooks - RSS feedSubscribe to the RSS feed for daily coverage of Larry Langford’s trial from Wade on Birmingham.

deck the haunted halls

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Any decor plans
beyond orange/black scheme, fake webs
and witches and ghosts?

• • •

Read more haiku.

Larry Langford trial, Day 6: Credit where credit is due

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Wade on Birmingham - The trial of Larry LangfordOngoing coverage of Birmingham mayor Larry Langford on trial in Tuscaloosa for bribery.

Highlights: Week 2 began with the last of the prosecution’s witnesses on Monday. Norm Davis of NBC Bank testified that Langford asked for a loan of $50,000 to $65,000, shortly after the institution became Jefferson County’s financial adviser. Langford received a credit card with a $25,000 limit, later raised to $65,000. Meanwhile, his credit score plummeted from 585 in 2003 to 485 in 2006. (Scores below 600 are considered “high risk” for lenders.)

Davis also painted a grim picture of Langford’s personal finances: In 2007, he was $649,946 in debt (including his mortgage) and $238,192 in credit card debt.

Prosecutors also read into the record portions of Langford’s deposition to the Securities and Exchange Commission from June 2007. Langford said in the deposition that he paid for his own clothes during trips to New York; Bill Blount testified last week that he had purchased the items, including a $12,000 watch, to bribe Langford. Langford also said that Blount never loaned him or gave him money; Blount had testified that he gave Langford more than $100,000 using Al LaPierre as a middleman.

Odds and ends: Who ended up buying Langford’s Rolex for $8,500? Patrick Cooper, Birmingham lawyer and runner-up in the 2007 mayoral election.

With the prosecution on the verge of wrapping up, Langford and his team have still made no decision as to whether he’ll take the stand.

Quote of the day:Getting ready to kick this thing off. No! It’s block by the Mount Cody of judge/jury conferences.” — Birmingham News columnist John Archibald

Homework:

Also, what lessons have we learned from the trial so far? “Archibald: Can’t we agree on a few things?”

• Langford, under no circumstances, should be allowed to handle public money.

• Everyone who gave Langford clothes or money … you are as responsible for the fallout as he.

Next: Defense expected to begin Tuesday.

• • •

Complete coverage: The trial of Larry Langford from Wade on Birmingham.

Follow @LLtrial on Twitter for continuous media updates.

Wade on Birmingham - Birmingham's Biggest Crooks - RSS feedSubscribe to the RSS feed for daily coverage of Larry Langford’s trial from Wade on Birmingham.