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In My Opinion

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Ethical, legal lines not that hard to see

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.
CANNON_ELEX_DAY_08
DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Patrick Cannon gave his acceptance speech after the Nov. 5, 2013, vote tally confirmed his election as mayor.

Ahem, let’s talk about the Hobbs Act. Far too many politicians and government officials seem to be unfamiliar with it. Otherwise, so many of them wouldn’t be snared in its clutches.

Politicians like Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon. Excuse me, former mayor.

Cannon resigned Wednesday after being ignominiously arrested by the FBI at a luxury South Park apartment, charged with bribery, fraud, theft, extortion – public corruption that’s principally a violation of the Hobbs Act. If convicted of those crimes, he faces up to 50 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

The Department of Justice’s press release announcing the charges rightly notes that “the charges contained in the criminal complaint are allegations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law.”

Yet, if the allegations are proved true, Cannon would join a shameful brotherhood of pols who thought they could get away with illegally and unethically using their office for personal gain only to be foiled by the feds armed with the Hobbs Act.

Reading the 42-page affidavit, you’d have to scratch your head about what Cannon was thinking if the charges are true. It’s cringe-worthy reading.

Sure, some of it sounds like the bravado of an egomaniacal politician bloated with his own self-importance. In one recorded conversation in the affidavit, Cannon allegedly promises to help the undercover agents posing as businessmen overcome obstacles, noting how he’s helped others with “alcohol permits,” “building standards” problems and the like: “Between fire and police, I have very good rapport there. I am actually Chairman of Public Safety for the City of Charlotte. So, that helps me with, uh, being able to have the Fire Department on my side when there are issues that the Fire Department can have with certain buildings and what not...,” the affidavit quotes Cannon as saying.

It seems almost laughable to read that he touted his influence reached the highest levels of government, given that he was invited along with other mayors to the White House to meet with and talk to the president. It’s a head-shaker that he could believe anyone would consider that an example of influence.

The bewilderment of all bewilderments is that the legal bell – let alone the ethical bell – would not ring loudly to any public official who solicits or accepts payments of thousands of dollars in cash.

The charges against Cannon are that he accepted more than “$48,000 in [money], airline tickets, a hotel room, and the use of a luxury apartment in exchange for the use of his official position,” which dating from 2010 to the present was a council member and mayor.

This is the essence of the Hobbs Act charge, that Cannon committed extortion “under the color of right” when he obtained “a payment to which he is not entitled knowing that it was made in exchange for official acts.”

The law was enacted in 1946. It was named after Congressman Sam Hobbs (D-AL), an ally of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. He introduced The Hobbs Act, which criminalized at least three distinct forms of criminal conduct: robbery, extortion by force, fear or threat, and extortion under color of law. Originally intended to fight racketeering, it is now widely used to punish extortion and corruption by public officials.

I first heard of the Hobbs Act 30 years ago when the mayor of my hometown of Augusta, Ga., was snared by it and spent a year in federal prison for extorting money from developers.

A number of mayors have been convicted under Hobbs. In 1991, Providence, R.I., mayor Vincent Albert “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. was forced to resign following his conviction for racketeering conspiracy (running a corrupt criminal enterprise). He served four years in federal prison.

Former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was convicted last month of accepting more than $500,000 in bribes plus free trips and other gratuities in exchange for helping contractors secure millions of dollars in work for the city. He hasn’t been sentenced yet. Nagin, by the way, gets a mention in the affidavit against Cannon when he allegedly tries to characterize his acceptance of the money he’s given as a business investment unrelated to his public office. It’s the day Nagin is indicted last year and Cannon allegedly says “I’m not one of those Chicago- or Detroit-type folks... New Orleans, Louisiana, whatever it is, I, I, that’s not how I flow.”

Other politicians have also been hit by the Hobbs Act. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, face a 14-count indictment stemming in part from more than $165,000 in gifts, and loans they accepted from Jonnie Williams, then CEO of Star Scientific, while McDonnell was governor of Virginia. Among the gifts Williams gave the McDonnells were a Rolex watch, designer clothes, golf outings and $15,000 for catering a daughter’s wedding reception, the indictment says. A trial is set for July.

I’ve heard from some former politicians that office-holders are often deluged with offers of money or other favors in exchange for their “help” with some project, scheme or whatever from businesses, groups or individuals. I guess the fact that some pols yield to temptation should not be a surprise. Indeed, more may be crossing the line but haven’t gotten caught – yet.

But here’s the thing. The bright line of ethical conduct, if not legal conduct, is clear to most folks. It’s especially clear if you have to say you’re not being unethical or a crook.

But for politicians who are hazy about it, best to keep a lawyer handy. You’re going to need one.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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