Ex-Alabama county commissioner gets probation for lying to grand jury about banker’s gifts

By Jay Reeves, AP
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ex-Ala. county official gets probation for lying

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A judge sentenced a former Jefferson County commissioner to three years of probation Thursday for lying to grand jurors about pricey gifts she took from a banker who made millions of dollars off lucrative public bond work.

Prosecutors sought six months in prison and a $30,000 fine for Mary Buckelew, who admitted lying when she denied taking $4,000 worth of shoes, spa treatments and a purse from upscale New York stores during business trips with investment banker Bill Blount of Montgomery.

But U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson cited the absence of previous crimes and the testimony of a dozen character witnesses in granting leniency to Buckelew.

Johnson called Buckelew “an incredible public servant” who should be held to a higher standard than others. The judge said the years on probation, combined with a $20,000 fine and 200 hours of community service work in Jefferson County schools, would “promote respect for the law.”

Prosecutors declined comment on the sentence.

Buckelew, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, denied taking items from Blount when she testified before a grand jury last year as it investigated corruption in Jefferson County bond deals.

That probe resulted in the recent bribery conviction and removal from office of Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford, who served with Buckelew on the commission and also received gifts and other items from Blount. Three other former commissioners have been convicted on corruption charges.

Standing before the judge, Buckelew apologized for what she had done.

“This is something that I’ll have to carry the burden of,” said Buckelew, 63. “I made a huge mistake.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney George Martin told the judge Buckelew’s actions were much worse than that, however.

“It was not a mistake. It was intentional criminal conduct,” he said.

Johnson said she was swayed by the testimony of friends and relatives who described Buckelew’s life as one of selfless dedication to the public. Buckelew admitted knowing Blount’s gifts were meant to sway her actions, but friends told the judge something else must have happened.

“That is not a person I believe would sell her vote for anything,” said Terry Henley, a businessman and former Auburn University football player. Another friend, Linda Nelson, said Buckelew was “impervious to bribery.”

In her guilty plea, Buckelew admitted taking shoes and a purse worth about $1,500 and purchased by Blount at Salvatore Ferragamo during a trip to New York in December 2003. She took gifts worth $1,119 from Blount during another trip 11 months later, plus a spa treatment worth $1,400.

Blount’s firm received bond work from the county worth $7.1 million. He admitted providing items to both Buckelew and Langford, who received gifts, checks and loan payments worth some $236,000.

A judge has yet to set a sentencing date for Langford.

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