FBI: Cannon boasted of connections, from White House to Charlotte

mwashburn@charlotteobserver.comMarch 27, 2014 

Then-Mayor Patrick Cannon, arrested this week on federal corruption and influence-peddling charges, bragged to undercover FBI agents that he had connections that might be valuable – stretching from Charlotte to the White House, according to federal documents.

At one point last fall, Cannon boasted to an agent posing as a businessman that Cannon and his wife were attending a party with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, according to an affidavit filed in the federal courthouse in Charlotte.

Cannon, a 47-year-old Democrat, also described how he would meet with the president and several of his department heads, suggesting to the agent that his access to the White House and members of Congress would secure grants for Charlotte’s streetcar project, the affidavit says.

The agent, working as part of a three-year sting operation against Cannon, had expressed interest in developing property along the line.

A White House official declined to comment on Cannon’s arrest citing the ongoing investigation, but said they were unaware of the FBI investigation at the time of Cannon’s visit to the White House in December 2013.

At the time of that White House visit, Cannon had just been elected mayor of Charlotte.

According to federal court filings in Charlotte, Cannon had also assured undercover FBI agents pretending to be businessmen that he could use his contacts to sidestep “problems with the city” over their development plans.

Cannon touted his relationship with everyone from Charlotte police and firefighters to state Sen. Robert Rucho and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, according to an affidavit filed in federal court Wednesday in Charlotte.

After rising from a childhood in public housing to become Charlotte’s longest-serving city council member, Cannon was arrested just four months into his term as mayor. The FBI is accusing him of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes – including $20,000 in cash delivered in a briefcase last month to the mayor’s office on the 15th floor of the governmental center overlooking the towering sprawl of uptown.

Cannon was scheduled to show up midday Wednesday at a luxury apartment in SouthPark for yet another payoff from what he thought were businessmen needing his influence in city matters, according to a source.

But after arriving, Cannon learned who they really were: undercover FBI agents who’d been recording their meetings over the past three years, long before he launched a campaign for mayor in 2013.

Cannon resigned as mayor Wednesday night, capping an extraordinary day that included allegations of an illicit trip to Las Vegas and payoff negotiations at the Capital Grille – the same uptown steakhouse that figured in the region’s last major political scandal. It was there that former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black of Matthews, also a Democrat, took bribes from a group of chiropractors seeking help with legislation.

Cannon was charged with theft and bribery, accused of taking cash payoffs at least five times. He was brought before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler, required to surrender his passport and released on $25,000 unsecured bond pending an indictment that could come as early as next week. Prominent Charlotte attorney James Ferguson was retained to represent him.

Historian Jack Claiborne, who has researched Charlotte’s mayors, said such corruption charges are unprecedented in the city’s history.

FBI agents with search warrants swept into the mayor’s office Wednesday, his home on Cumnor Lane in Ballantyne and his offices at E-Z Parking Inc. at 312 W. Trade St. They seized financial records, phones, computers and other electronic devices. They were also searching for a leather briefcase that agents say they stuffed with cash for the February visit to the mayor’s office.

If convicted on all charges, Cannon faces up to 50 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

Long rise to power

Cannon was born in Charlotte and often referred to overcoming hardship. He was 5 when his father was found shot to death outside a vacant westside school. He was raised by his mother, who worked on a truck assembly line in south Charlotte.

Through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, he met future mayor and governor Pat McCrory, whose brother, Phil McCrory, was mentoring Cannon in the program. Pat McCrory helped teach Cannon to swim at age 13.

Cannon and McCrory talked for roughly 10 minutes Wednesday, right before Cannon went to his appointment with the agents. They talked about the ongoing airport commission saga, said McCrory, a Republican. Cannon was the longest-serving elected official in Charlotte, having joined the City Council in 1993. (He was out of office from 2005 to 2009.)

“He was very close to me and my family,” McCrory said in Raleigh. “I’m just extremely disappointed and angry.”

Focus turns to Cannon

According to U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, a federal corruption investigation began in 2010 aimed at other Charlotte targets, but Cannon, then a City Council member and mayor pro tem, became a primary subject of the probe in 2011.

FBI agents began an “American Hustle”-type operation against Cannon, beginning with a meeting with an undercover agent passing himself off as business manager for a venture capital company based in Chicago.

According to a detailed affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Eric Davis, who has been active in other public corruption cases in the region:

The agent met Cannon in November 2010, saying he and his investors wanted to open a nightclub in Charlotte.

Ultimately, the agent chose a property in uptown that had parking problems and required zoning changes. In subsequent meetings, Cannon described his relationship and influence over certain city departments and employees, including the zoning board, according to the affidavit.

On Dec. 12, 2012, Cannon met an undercover agent at Capital Grille on North Tryon Street. Cannon asked the agent if he’d be interested in investing in a business Cannon planned to start called HERS, which would sell a feminine hygiene product nationally, the affidavit says. There was no evidence in the affidavit whether HERS exists.

The agent agreed to give Cannon a $12,500 “zero-percent return on investment” loan in return for his assistance in getting approval for the zoning needed for the nightclub.

But, the agent claims, Cannon said he needed $40,000. “I can do something for around $12,500. Any ideas how I can close the gap and get me some of that capital to get me started to pull this thing in?”

In exchange for the money, the agent asked Cannon to “make sure I don’t run into any problems,” the affidavit said.

Cannon allegedly replied: “I will definitely help you out. So you just want me to help you out on that front?”

Cash on the table

On Jan. 17, 2013, agents say they met Cannon at a SouthPark apartment rented by agents for $2,100 a month. It was outfitted with secret recording equipment.

That day, the undercover agent gave Cannon the $12,500 in cash by putting it on a coffee table in front of him. Cannon, according to the affidavit, looked nervously toward a window and covered the cash with a folder.

After the agent shut the blinds, Cannon put the bills to his ear, then fanned them.

The next day, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was indicted in Louisiana on bribery and money laundering charges. After the news broke, Cannon called the undercover agent and tried to characterize his acceptance of the money as a business investment unrelated to his public office, the affidavit says.

In laying out his philosophy as a public official, Cannon told the agent that he would have helped him even without the $12,500. “I’m not one of those Chicago- or Detroit-type folk. … That’s not how I flow.”

In an ironic aside during that same meeting, Cannon said that he looked good “in an orange necktie, but not in an orange suit,” the affidavit says.

Starting mayoral campaign

In 2013, Cannon’s political ascendency began to run parallel to the feds’ sting, which had been running more than two years.

When Cannon announced his candidacy for mayor May 21, he invited an undercover agent to attend, the affidavit says.

That month, the City Council approved a streetcar line to west Charlotte. Weeks later, a second undercover agent approached Cannon and said his company was interested in investing along its path. He told Cannon he needed his help persuading potential investors, and he’d fly Cannon to Las Vegas to do it.

Las Vegas: Lies for cash

As part of the Las Vegas trip with the agent, Cannon agreed to create “the false impression with the investors” that Cannon had had a long relationship with the undercover agents, the affidavit says.

In June, during discussions before the trip, Cannon raised the question of how he would be compensated for his role. When the agent replied, “I want to take care of you on this,” Cannon allegedly suggested a contribution to his mayoral campaign.

But the agent refused to pay Cannon before they took the trip. Cannon, according to the affidavit, continued to press for the money up front.

In the end, the agent flew Cannon and his wife to Las Vegas on July 1 and paid for a hotel room. He also says he gave Cannon $1,000 in cash at the hotel.

During the subsequent meeting, four FBI agents posing as businessmen promised to invest up to $25 million each for commercial property along the streetcar line.

Again, the agent reported Cannon boasted of his ability and willingness to make things happen. “Being around for 20 years has helped me a little bit, I think. I’ve gone through probably four police chiefs, five city managers, three mayors, something like that.”

Asked by one of the investors how long and often Cannon could assist with the project, Cannon replied: “As long as I’m elected.”

A second Vegas payoff

Afterward, the second undercover agent had a private meeting with Cannon in Las Vegas. The affidavit says they reached Cannon’s wife, Trenna, by speakerphone, and she personally thanked the agent for the $1,000 from the day before.

After the call, the agent said he paid Cannon another $5,000 in cash for his presentation to the investors. Cannon tucked the envelope containing the bills in the breast pocket of his suit.

Then Cannon asked whether he could work with the second agent “on some private deals,” the affidavit says. “Your value to us, obviously, is the position that you’re in and that you can pick up the phone and make things happen for us … that, from our perspective, is absolutely invaluable. … There’s no reason why it can’t be a win-win relationship for both of us,” the agent told him.

After returning to Charlotte, Cannon met with an undercover agent in the SouthPark apartment rented by the FBI. There, agents say, they gave Cannon an extra $10,000 for his work in Las Vegas.

Cannon wanted access to the apartment himself. He asked for keys at least six times. An unidentified campaign aide also texted an undercover agent on behalf of Cannon for the key.

When Cannon finally got his own his key, he celebrated the moment, proclaiming excitedly, “Aw, man!”

Payoff in February

On Feb. 21 this year, an undercover agent brought one of the phony Las Vegas investors to Cannon’s office in the Government Center. During that meeting, the affidavit says, Cannon received a leather Fossil briefcase containing $20,000 in cash. Then Cannon asked for substantially more.

“I told Trenna she has a point,” Cannon told the agents.

“She has what?” the agent responded.

“A point, 1 percent,” the mayor replied.

That meant Cannon was asking for a 1 percent payoff from the potential $125 million project, or $1.25 million in all, according to the affidavit.

Then the mayor and the agent talked about the best way to get the $20,000 out of the office.

“I just got to be conscious about that kind of stuff here,” Cannon allegedly said.

GAVIN OFF, MARIA DAVID, APRIL BETHEA, KATHLEEN PURVIS, JIM MORRILL AND GARY SCHWAB CONTRIBUTED.

Gordon: 704-358-5095

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