Critics: Cannon put his own interests over Charlotte’s

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.comMarch 26, 2014 

Wednesday’s criminal charges against Democratic Mayor Patrick Cannon stunned the city he’s led for just five months.

But they didn’t surprise many who’ve watched his political rise or who did business with him.

“Nothing that happened today surprised me,” said Jay Snover, who co-owns two companies that compete with Cannon’s E-Z Parking.

He’s one of several Charlotteans who acknowledged misgivings about Cannon even before Wednesday’s release of a 42-page criminal complaint against the mayor.

Cannon resigned after federal agents alleged he took bribes from undercover agents, including $20,000 in the mayor’s office.

Over the years he has been dogged by legal problems and engaged in business practices that left some would-be partners uncomfortable.

Even some Democrats were wary.

Parks Helms, a Democratic Party stalwart, said he’s heard stories from other Democrats – particularly during last year’s mayoral primary – that Cannon has “a lot of baggage.”

“I’ve always felt a sense of concern about Patrick,” said Helms, who supported Cannon’s primary opponent. “He came so far so fast. I always wondered if he had the depth of character, the depth of commitment to the city of Charlotte as opposed to the depth of commitment to Patrick Cannon.

“I could never satisfy myself that the city and his job as mayor took precedence over his self-interests.”

Years of questions

Questions were raised in 2005 when Cannon abruptly ended his first mayoral campaign. In citing a renewed focus on his family, he didn’t tell the whole story.

In 2009, the Observer discovered a series of Internal Revenue Service liens involving his parking company that by 2008 would total $193,553. All were eventually canceled. Cannon acknowledged in 2009 that people had been “misled about the truth.”

In January the Observer reported that Cannon’s parking management company, E-Z Parking, had incorrectly filed business license taxes on the roughly 20 lots and decks it manages. Cannon referred questions to company officials, who pledged to change how they pay taxes.

Last year businessman Cameron Harris, a former Mecklenburg Democratic Party chairman, recounted a deal he said he and his wife had with Cannon years ago. He still declines to discuss details, though he said it involved an upfront fee to Cannon and left bad feelings.

Cannon said he was trying to help the couple get project capital by putting them in touch with a third party and he received nothing in return. An associate involved in the deal supported his account. But Harris stuck by his claim Wednesday.

“It was obviously shady,” he said of the deal. “He’s probably going to get what he deserves now. I told you so.”

Two other businessmen said they also were close to business arrangements with Cannon and his company. One said he had “a gut feeling” not to complete the deal.

Snover, the parking company owner, said he believes Cannon got favored treatment for his business.

“We consistently lost parking lots because of promises of city favors by Patrick Cannon,” he said.

Cannon’s parking business

During the campaign, Cannon cast himself as someone who had beat the odds.

He was raised in public housing by a single mother. He was 5 in 1972 when his father, Thomas Odom, was murdered in a still-unsolved case.

When first elected to City Council at 26, Cannon held a succession of jobs. He was a consumer relations specialist for a finance company, a resume consultant and a marketer for a company that supplied printer paper and toner.

Around 1996, Cannon has said, he got a call from Hugh McColl, then-chairman and CEO of what would become Bank of America. McColl, he said, asked for the names of minority vendors in areas including security and parking management. That gave Cannon an idea.

He researched the parking business. Later, he said, he went back to McColl. “Mr. McColl, I think I found somebody who understands the parking business,” he recalled saying. “Me.”

Cannon’s new E-Z Parking gave the bank an opportunity to help start and nurture a small, minority-owned business.

E-Z Parking started with a small uptown lot on North Tryon Street. It expanded to other lots owned by the bank, and then to other companies. Now it manages around 25,000 spaces for businesses, institutions and even the Carolina Panthers.

“I was really shocked, to be honest,” McColl said of the charges. “And I continue to be shocked. It seems beyond the pale. It makes no sense to me. I’m sorry for Charlotte and I’m actually sorry for him that he made such a terrible mistake. The most important thing for us as a community is to move ahead.”

Helms said he’s sorry, too. While he had little interaction with Cannon as a county commissioner, he watched Cannon’s political rise and felt sadness and anger about his downfall.

“It angers me for somebody to have such a great opportunity and great potential to squander it by doing what he is alleged to have done,” Helms said. “By taking money, he had to know that was wrong – ethically, morally and legally wrong.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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