By Patsy R. Brumfield
BOONEVILLE – Some men cry because they get caught doing something wrong.
Joey Langston cries, not because he got caught, but because he’s so ashamed of what he’s done, says Tim Gann, his longtime best friend.
"How will I face anybody?" has been Langston’s question, Gann said, as Prentiss County’s most prominent citizen awaits his fate from Chief Judge Michael Mills in Oxford’s U.S. District Court.
Earlier this month, Langston admitted he tried to bribe a judge. It may be the worst thing a lawyer can ever do.
But Mississippi's 2007 Trial Lawyer of the Year, the man who has won millions of dollars in fees from a decades-long legal career, isn’t a lawyer any more. That was one price of his Jan. 7 guilty plea.
Nearly a month later, an emotional discomfort lingers in the air of this Prentiss County seat. That unease washes across Main Street from the storied Langston Law Firm, where three attorneys wait, not quite knowing what will happen to their lives and careers.
It washes across to the courthouse, where the 50-year-old Langston was a fixture of power as attorney for the county’s Board of Supervisors.
And it continues down Church Street to the blond-brick First Baptist Church, where Joey and Tracie Langston are part of The Seekers Sunday School class.
Chiefly that discomfort lives in the psyches of all those people – and there are hundreds, perhaps thousands in this town of nearly 9,000 – who care about Langston and his family, and who have been touched in one way or another by their kindnesses.
There also are a few who have found some joy in his fall from grace because he was ...
The golden boy.
The prince of torts.
The Booneville youth who always wanted to do everything right.
It’s not surprising he declined Daily Journal requests to speak publicly about his current situation, but his supporters are more than willing to talk about Langston’s standing with them.
"Your friends are still your friends," reflected Gann, sitting behind his desk on a cold day at Cartwright Ford on Second Street, Booneville’s main drag.
Gann is just one of many people who will tell you, without hesitation, how their lives or the lives of others they know were helped in some way by Joey and Tracie Langston. He is quick to surmise there must be hundreds more the public will never know about because the Langstons rarely sought attention for their benevolence. Their gifts went to people who don’t write receipts.
Today, many of them are writing letters to Judge Mills, beseeching him for his mercy in the fate of their friend.
"Joey always wanted to have his life as a living character reference," Gann reflected, understanding the irony of his words.
Today, this community seeks to find ways to reach out, but it’s an uncomfortable balance of emotions.
The Langstons’ pastor, Dr. Lynn Jones, feels that tension as he seeks to minister to them and offer lessons for his congregation.
"It's awkward for them and for anyone who loves them," Jones assessed. "We want to respect people’s privacy, but we want to let them know we care."
As a church, he says, the congregation must deal with it.
"Obviously, we want all our members to always do what's right," Jones noted, "but people don’t always do what’s right."
The Baptist minister, who’s been the Langstons’ pastor for 12 years, looks for sunlight behind the cloud.
"For everyone involved, there’s always some good that comes out of it – that’s what we are praying for."
Dr. Johnny Allen is president of Northeast Mississippi Community College, where Tracie Langston is an active member of his board of trustees.
"I don't find any pleasure in people's troubles," said Allen. "Obviously, something has happened, but it's only a small facet of their lives."
What is certain: The 50-year-old Langston has come to a very low point in his life on the south edge of town where he, his wife and their three grown sons live in an impressive estate. Its brick fence and iron gatework likely cost more than the homes of most of the region’s residents.
And while some insist Langston is something akin to Satan in the way he practiced law, many other people grow tearful when they speak about the family’s random acts of kindness.
Many have been touched by the Langstons, near and far – hairstylists and church congregations; students and universities; cancer patients and professional colleagues.
Said Bo Burress, an attorney in Langston’s firm: "They have done countless good deeds."
Joseph Cashe Langston and his family moved from Clinton in 1964. The patriarch, Joe Ray Langston, had just finished law school there and liked the idea of joining friends in Booneville.
And move they did.
Joey was just a kid. He and his siblings went to Booneville schools. That’s where he met Tim Gann and began a lifelong friendship.
"We were runnin’ buddies," Gann explained as the winter weather grew more ominous outside Cartwright Ford, where he works.
They played football together in junior high – Tim at left guard, Joey at right guard. Their bond has lasted these 40 years. Gann describes the young Joey as very loyal to his friends.
"We'd be out of town on a weekend – I didn’t have any money," he recalled about high school. "He'd ease up to me and ask ‘Got any money?’ and then he'd hand me a little bit secretly so nobody else would know.
"Why would he do that? Because he cared."
Perhaps Joey got his generosity from his father. Gann recounted a time when the senior Langston had a money-strapped client who asked if he could pay him in purple-hull peas, watermelons and chickens.
"That will be fine," Gann recalled Joe Ray Langston telling the man. "We love peas – this will be great."
The senior Langston opened his law office downtown just a stone’s throw from its present location. The family wasn’t well-heeled back then and the office was spare, as were so many other Mississippi solo practices in those days.
Today it is decorated with original art, custom carpets and leather furniture.
It also is a place of conflicted impressions and uncertainties. Langston will never practice law again, but in a place of honor on a dark wood table by the entry is a plaque – it boasts that Joseph C. Langston has been designated a Mid-South Super Lawyer. His photograph and biography were on the firm’s Web site until it was posted as “under construction” late last week.
For Langston, 2007 was a remarkable year professionally, if you can somehow forget its catastrophic conclusion. He was named the Stanford Young Award recipient and was rated in Law Dragon’s 500 Leading Plaintiffs’ Lawyers in America. The Young award is presented by the Mississippi Democratic Party to the lawyer who exemplifies the standards set forth by the former Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association president for which it is named.
He was listed by Martindale-Hubbell’s AV Peer Review for top ethical standards and legal ability.
He was the 2007 state Trial Lawyer of the Year.
For Langston, 2007 also was a year of controversy: Political candidates in a statewide election criticized his Democratic ally, Attorney General Jim Hood, when Hood’s successful lawsuit against telecommunications giant MCI to collect back taxes of $100 million, plus property, included another $14 million for attorneys fees awarded to a Louisiana firm and Langston, a Hood campaign contributor.
But law is not all he knows.
According to records with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office, Langston is an officer for several businesses, including G&L Properties with Gann and Thomas Keenum Sr.; Edge Auction Sales with Perry and Vicki Edge; and Langston Properties Inc. with his wife.
Sent to private school
Joey didn’t graduate with his BHS friends. It wasn’t that anything was wrong, just perhaps that Joe Ray Langston wanted a bigger springboard for his sons.
At the start of his junior year, Joey and his younger brother, Shane, were sent to Baylor prep school in Chattanooga, then they moved on to Millsaps College after graduation.
Yet he continued an emotional tie to the Class of 1976. When it hosted a reunion in recent years, he was there celebrating with everybody else.
Gann says Joey never was cocky or arrogant, but he was competitive, whether it was at tennis or academics:
"He just always wanted to do his best." He has a Millsaps tennis award named for him, which goes to the most improved/hardest worker. And he was inducted into Millsaps’ Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
In August of 1983, Langston graduated from law school at the University of Mississippi, his wife’s undergrad alma mater. The couple continues to remember their educational roots with substantial financial gifts and scholarships to Northeast, Millsaps and Ole Miss.
Joey came home to join his father in the law practice. Their professional relationship would not last more than three years – the senior Langston died suddenly of a heart attack.
His death hit Joey pretty hard, Gann said, recalling his friend’s oft-repeated advice to him to “go home and tell your daddy you love him.” Gann’s father died later that same year, 1986.
Joey walked the floors with Gann when Gann’s wife delivered their first child, a son. Joey asked to be his godfather and the two men shook hands to seal the bond.
Gann says he worries about his friend, now that his public persona is tarnished.
At his Jan. 7 plea hearing, Langston told Judge Mills he was ashamed and embarrassed at what he had done.
"And I should be," Langston said.
"You earned it," Mills answered.
"Yes, sir, I have," Langston replied.
Gann says he’s told Joey there’s no changing what has happened, but that everybody’s done things they aren’t proud of.
Reflecting on Langston’s fall from grace, Gann is philosphical about the situation. "Who knows why people do what they do?" he said. "You can be sorry you got caught or you can be truly sorry that you did it. Joey is truly sorry for what he has done."
He had a perfect life. Now, it’s not perfect any more. He doesn’t want to face anybody in this town and county, where he’s held such sway.
It wasn’t easy, but the two men have talked about what’s happened. "It isn't pretty to see two 50-year-old men crying like babies," Gann admitted.
"You have to pay for what you’ve done, but maybe there are other ways to pay," Gann said as he talked about writing his own letter to Judge Mills.
A priceless gift
Saundra Smith is a hairdresser at Kuttin’ Up salon just south of where South Second Street crosses College Street.
She’s known Joey Langston since he and Tracie were married more than 20 years ago. They lived across the street from her mother, Carmen Bullard, and Mrs. Bullard began to babysit for the Langstons so Tracie could go back to teaching school after their first child, Keaton, was born.
The Langstons, Saundra and her mother got close, like family, she says, so much so they called her mother Mamaw.
This story is in Smith’s letter to Judge Mills.
Her mother became ill and moved to a Georgia nursing home. The Langstons were faithful with cards and gifts.
When Mrs. Bullard died, Joey was in a trial in California. He secured a delay, telling the judge he had a death in his family, and took charge of helping Saundra and her schoolteacher sister with their mother’s final arrangements. He and his sons were pallbearers at her funeral.
He also told the women he would take care of the financial arrangements, more than $10,000. Later, when they asked about repaying the debt, Saundra recalls,
"He said it was his gift to her." He also asked them never to talk about it again.
"I know he made a mistake, but I believe all of us do things we regret," she wrote to Mills.
Saundra laughed at the memory of Joey’s reaction to his first-born’s happy, extended visits to her hair salon.
"He told me, 'If he ever wants to do hair, I'll have to kill you,'" she recalled.
The Rev. Henry Damons had a situation back in 2006. His Ruben Chapel CME Church and Prentiss County were at loggerheads over a year-long dispute.
The county wanted the church property so it could extend the Booneville-Baldwyn Airport.
It planned to take the property by eminent domain, raze the church building and relocate eight graves from the property.
The problem was simple: The fair market value of Ruben Chapel’s building wasn’t enough to pay for a replacement facility. And so the congregation balked at the legal proceedings.
Joey Langston broke the stalemate with a $40,000 donation through The Langston Fund, a charitable organization he and Tracie set up in 2002.
Today, Ruben Chapel is about two months from completing the new building alongside Highway 45 on the Prentiss County side of Baldwyn.
"Joey came through for us," Damons said. "It's a win-win for Prentiss County and the church."
He described Langston as a "kind man" who does a lot for his community. "Everyone is satisfied," he noted.
Besides his benevolence, Langston was interested in the case because his law firm has a large plane housed at the airport, although media reports late last week said the $5 million jet is up for sale.
The plane has been used in the Corporate Angel Network, which ferries cancer patients to treatment centers across the nation.
Giving to the church
Ronnie Livington and his congregation at Marietta Church of Christ also have the Langstons to thank as they gathered last Sunday in their new church facility next to downtown’s four-way stop.
Their previous, 1940s-era structure was in bad shape with sagging structural supports and a flooded basement.
Elizabeth Pharr, a church stalwart at nearly 90, has known Joey Langston since he moved to Prentiss County and her husband was a county supervisor. She told him about her church’s need and The Langston Fund came through with a $402,000 loan at very low interest.
"We couldn’t have done it without them," admits preacher Livingston, who’s on the road selling car parts during the week. The congregation pays on its loan each month and plans to have it repaid in 12 years. Livingston estimates the financial arrangement saved them $150,000.
As a man of God, he knows he can’t overlook what Langston admits he’s done, but Livingston compares Langston’s fall to the Biblical Saul, who came to know Christ and changed his life.
"We all make mistakes," the preacher said. "He admitted it and he took his punishment."
The next chapter
Joey Langston’s sentencing date is not publicly known.
It could depend upon how much they want him to tell them about his alleged dealings with Oxford mega-lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, former New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci, former state Auditor Steven A. Patterson, former Hinds District Attorney Ed Peters and Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
Langston told Judge Mills he did what the government said he did – conspired with Balducci, Patterson and Peters to influence DeLaughter, sometimes with Scruggs’ help.
While Peters, DeLaughter and Scruggs have not been charged with anything in this case, Patterson and Balducci pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey for a favorable ruling in another case over legal fees. In their plea agreements, the government pledged not to charge them with anything else related or unrelated to the matter.
Langston faces prison time and a $250,000 fine.
Bo Burress, who remains with The Langston Firm, doesn’t quite know what the future holds for himself and two other attorneys there.
Judge Mills demanded Langston surrender his law license, which he did. Bobby Bailess of Vicksburg, Mississippi Bar Association president, termed it “an irrevocable resignation.” That means Langston will never practice law again.
It isn’t something Burress feels comfortable talking about. But he readily admits his employer’s dilemma is shared in many ways by the firm members and the public, which has benefited from the firm’s generosity.
"If anybody needed something, this was the place to go," the Booneville native said, sitting at a long, dark wood conference table in the red brick downtown office.
He slowly began to recall the numerous causes and charities they’ve supported financially – cheerleaders, athletics, academics, Girl Scouts, clubs, bulletproof vests for law enforcement.
"These are the most charitable people I've ever known," he noted, looking around the conference room.
He worries about the future of the firm’s "ripple effect," recalling his favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." In the Frank Capra classic, George Bailey laments he was ever born, and then is shown how people’s lives would have been altered, if he had never existed.
Burress understands how the firm’s support has rolled through the community, affecting one group, which then affects another and so on and so on.
Time will tell, he seems to be thinking.
The Joey Langston file
• Age, 50
• Moved from Clinton to Booneville in 1964
• Graduate of Baylor prep school in Chattanooga
• Bachelor’s degree, Millsaps College
• Law degree, University of Mississippi
• Joined his family’s law practice in 1983
• Prentiss County’s Outstanding Citizen in 2002
• Family – Wife, former Tracie Arnold; three adult sons
Langston pleaded guilty to trying to bribe Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter for a favorable ruling in a legal fees lawsuit.
The plea deal
1. He pleads guilty to one count of conspiracy to corruptly influence an elected state official.
2. Government agrees to seek no more than three years in prison.
3. He agrees to cooperate with the government.
4. Government agrees not to charge him with anything else, related or unrelated, to this matter.
5. The U.S. agrees not to seek forfeiture of his assets.
The possible sentence
• No more than five years incarceration
• No more than three years supervised
• No more than $250,000 fine
Langston’s high-profile cases
• MCI – The firm stands to collect part of $14 million in fees.
• Captain D’s – Awaiting a 5th Circuit appeal on a $20 million verdict.
• Coast Gas Co. – An undisclosed settlement amount after a Lee County family’s home was destroyed by a propane gas explosion.
• The Tobacco Lawsuit.
• Lehman Brothers – $51 million verdict in case of defrauded mortgage borrowers.
Gifts for education
• $100,000 endowment to Ole Miss to create scholarships for Booneville-area students and graduates of Northeast Mississippi Community College.
• $100,000 to Millsaps College to assist students returning with increased financial need.
• $197,000 to Northeast Mississippi Community College’s major gifts program.
• $20,120 to Northeast annual student scholarships.
• $11,956 to Northeast campus activities.
What they are saying
“I know he made a mistake, but I believe all of us do things we regret.”
– Saundra Smith,
Joey Langston’s hair stylist.
“These are the most charitable people I’ve ever known.”
– Bo Burress, lawyer at The Langston Firm.
“For everyone involved, there’s always some good that comes out of it – that’s what we are praying for.”
– The Rev. Lynn Jones, pastor,
First Baptist Church of Booneville.