Monday, March 8, 2010

Larry Langford Case Shows That Justice Is Far From Color Blind

Former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison on Friday for his conviction on corruption-related charges.

The facts and the law, as we understand them, indicate that Langford probably was doing some things he should not have been doing. And the former mayor's actions might indeed have violated federal bribery and fraud laws--even though our impulse is to question any prosecution that began under the George W. Bush Justice Department.

The point here, however, is not to examine Larry Langford's guilt or innocence. We think it is more important to ask this question: Is America's justice system color blind? Based on what we know about the Langford case, and a case involving one of the best-known white businessmen in Alabama, the answer is a resounding "no."

Let's consider Larry Langford and Paul Bryant Jr.--and their brushes with the federal justice system.

Langford, who is black, grew up in a Birmingham housing project. He went on to become a prominent Democratic politician, being elected to several positions over the past 20 years or so.

Bryant, who is white, is a child of privilege--of fame, money, and power. His father, the late Paul "Bear" Bryant, was the Hall of Fame football coach at the University of Alabama. "Cubby" Bryant inherited his father's business savvy, and substantial resources, and turned them into a company called Greene Group Inc. Bryant Jr. also became a member of the University of Alabama's Board of Trustees, a position where he helps oversee millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

Langford stepped in doo-doo when he steered Jefferson County bond business to an investment banker in exchange for cash, clothes, and jewelry. The estimated amount of the bribes was $235,000. What happened to Langford? The federal government investigated, prosecuted, and gained a conviction.

Bryant stepped in doo-doo when Alabama Reassurance, one of his companies under the Greene Group umbrella, was implicated in an insurance-fraud scheme that resulted in a 15-year prison sentence for a Pennsylvania lawyer/entrepreneur named Allen W. Stewart. It's unclear if Bryant personally was involved in the scheme. But Alabama Re had only two full-time employees, who served on a five-man board that included Bryant. It was a small, tight operation, so it seems unlikely that any of the five board members would have been kept in the dark about a major fraud scheme.

This much, however, is clear: Paul Bryant Jr. and his colleagues were treated very differently from Larry Langford. The Allen W. Stewart trial presented conclusive evidence that something was afoul at Alabama Re. But did the federal government follow up by investigating Bryant Jr. and his company? Our sources say the feds were about to launch an investigation, but someone called it off.

Sounds like Paul Bryant Jr. had a protector in the U.S. Justice Department. I bet Larry Langford wishes he'd had that kind of protection.

But here's the key point: The scope of alleged fraud involving Alabama Re swamps that involving Larry Langford. Public documents in the Allen W. Stewart case, easily available on the Web, indicate that Alabama Re helped engineer a $15-million fraud scheme. And documents filed with the Alabama Department of Insurance in 2006 state that Alabama Re had admitted assets in excess of $238 million. A logical question: How much of that money was earned through fraudulent means?

By comparison, Langford was playing with allowance money. But he, a black man, got nailed with a 15-year prison sentence.

Paul Bryant Jr., and his white colleagues, got off scot-free. In fact, our sources indicate that someone in the U.S. Justice Department intentionally helped cover up a scheme that left numerous consumers with worthless life-insurance policies.

So let's ask that question again: Is justice in America color blind?

Not even close.

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