Former Charlotte mayor pleads guilty to corruption

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comJune 3, 2014 

Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to a federal public corruption charge, and now faces up to 20 years in prison.

The plea capped a four-year investigation in which he took bribes in exchange for the promise of helping developers.

He entered a guilty plea to one count of honest services wire fraud, a charge commonly used in cases where a public official takes kickbacks or bribes. After the hearing, Cannon said he regretted having broken the public trust, and that he would still try to have a positive impact on Charlotte.

“Much has been given to me in the way of the public’s trust. I regret having acted in ways that broke that trust,” said Cannon, speaking outside the courthouse. “I love Charlotte. It is the city of my birth. I regret having hurt the city that I love.”

Cannon will be sentenced at a separate hearing in the coming months. The charge carries up to a 20-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

As he walked into the courthouse Tuesday morning, Cannon tripped and fell as he walked through the crowd of television cameras and reporters wielding microphones.

Dressed in a conservative business suit, Cannon appeared in court flanked by his two attorneys.

The hearing consisted of routine questions by the judge and answers by Cannon. The details had been worked out beforehand between the attorneys in private.

“You fully understand the charge against you?” U.S. Magistrate David Clark asked Cannon.

“Yes sir, your honor,” Cannon replied.

At the hearing, Cannon appeared emotional at times, but did not break down.

“Are you in fact guilty of the one count?” Clark asked.

“Yes sir, your honor. I am guilty,” Cannon replied.

Cannon’s wife, Trenna Cannon, did not come to federal court.

At the hearing’s conclusion, Cannon declined a chance to address the court. He delivered a brief prepared statement outside of the federal courthouse.

“For nearly half my life, I have had the honor of serving the people of Charlotte,” Cannon said.

“Today, I have acknowledged being guilty of accepting money for constituent services, which I never should have done while serving in elected office,” said Cannon, a Democrat.

He asked for forgiveness, and praised his attorneys, Henderson Hill and James Ferguson.

“I can only hope the life I live from now on will reflect my remorse and my desire to make a positive impact on the city of Charlotte,” said Cannon. He didn’t take questions, and left immediately afterward.

Cannon has promised to cooperate with the investigation as part of his plea deal. In return, prosecutors have said they won’t use any additional evidence Cannon provides to push for a harsher sentence.

The guilty plea is the coda to a spectacular fall for Cannon. Raised by a single mother in public housing, Cannon ascended to the top of Charlotte politics. He was elected mayor last fall, two decades after he became the youngest candidate ever elected to City Council in 1993.

He now stands to be the city’s first mayor ever sent to prison.

Federal prosecutors say the investigation is ongoing, and charges against new targets remain a possibility.

The “developers” Cannon accepted bribes from were undercover FBI agents. They said Cannon took bribes totaling almost $50,000, as well as gifts such as a trip to Las Vegas.

In a criminal bill of information outlining the charges against him, investigators said Cannon also took bribes from a Charlotte club owner seeking help to keep an adult entertainment club open in the face of the Lynx Blue Line extension.

Influence-peddling and bribes

During the investigation, Cannon bragged of his influence over various city functions and officials, according to the FBI. He assured the undercover agents that he could smooth out any problems developers might face.

His boasts included having power over the police, fire and zoning departments. Cannon called city employees on behalf of the “developers,” and said his support had been key to past development successes, such as the Metropolitan near uptown.

According to new documents unsealed Monday, he also solicited and accepted a series of bribes starting in 2009 to help an unnamed “Businessman #1.” The man is owner of an adult entertainment club in the path of the planned Lynx Blue Line extension.

Construction of the 9.3 mile light rail required the city to acquire the land where the businessman’s club was located, according to the federal document.

In January 2013, prosecutors say Cannon pocketed $2,000 from the club’s owner to influence zoning, planning and transportation department to make it easier for the night spot to stay in business.

The club, Twin Peeks, is owned by Charlotte strip club mogul David “Slim” Baucom. Baucom is not named in the court documents and has not been charged.

Twin Peeks adjoins the Blue Line Extension and was demolished in June 2013, after having received a delay to its closing date. Baucom also received a variance that allows Twin Peeks to be rebuilt on the remainder of the lot, according to Charlotte Area Transit System documents.

According to a court document unsealed Monday, Cannon solicited support for the club owner from the district representative on City Council. At the time, that was Michael Barnes.

Barnes, now mayor pro tem, told the Observer that he spoke with Cannon about the project, and emails show that he reached out to city staff.

Cannon also contacted the city zoning administrator and other officials to urge them to provide zoning approvals needed to move and rebuild the club on the same property, according to the federal document.

The then-mayor also arranged a meeting between Baucom and CATS officials so the club could remain open during an annual racing event “in which the Club earned significant revenue,” according to the document.

Contacted by the Observer earlier this year, Baucom said he barely knew Cannon and had not been questioned by the FBI.

Baucom could not be reached Monday, and reporters were unable to locate him at his home or office. He is not mentioned by name in documents.

Four-year sting

FBI agents arrested Cannon on March 26, after years of courting him and plying him with bribes.

Cannon first became the target of an FBI investigation in August 2010, soon after his 2009 return to Charlotte politics following a four-year absence. Starting in January 2013, Cannon took almost $50,000 worth of bribes, as well as gifts such as the occasional use of a SouthPark-area apartment

In February, the FBI said Cannon took $20,000 cash from an undercover agent in the mayor’s office. He then asked for more than $1 million more in kickbacks, investigators said.

A month later, Cannon was arrested at the SouthPark apartment. He had gone to meet agents and receive another payment, according to a source familiar with the case.

Hannah Jeffrey, Rick Rothacker and Mike Gordon contributed

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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