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Experts: Patrick Cannon grand jury delay could signal plea talks

The corruption charges against former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon now may not go before a federal grand jury until the middle of next month, at the earliest.

The delay, legal experts say, could be the first sign of possible plea negotiations between Cannon and prosecutors.

The FBI arrested Cannon on Wednesday, accusing him in court documents of taking almost $50,000 in bribes from undercover federal agents and soliciting at least $1 million more.

Prosecutors from the office of U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins could take the corruption charges against the 47-year-old Democrat before a grand jury as early as next week.

But that timetable likely changed Thursday when James Ferguson, Cannon’s attorney, waived his client’s right to a preliminary hearing. That also removes the requirement that the prosecution have an indictment against Cannon within 30 days of his arrest.

The Western District of North Carolina, which Tompkins represents, has two federal grand juries hearing cases throughout the year, and either could hear Cannon’s case. One meets in Asheville next Tuesday. The other, in Charlotte, reconvenes April 15.

Susan Calkins, clerk of the Charlotte grand jury, said Friday that grand jury members don’t know ahead of time what cases they’ll hear.

A spokeswoman for Tompkins’ office declined to comment Friday about the case. So did Ferguson.

But skipping the preliminary hearing gives the defense team more time to study the evidence while Cannon avoids the negative publicity of an early indictment or a public airing of the evidence before a judge. Because the investigation continues, prosecutors have more time to develop their case and potentially bring additional charges against Cannon or any others involved.

Experts say they expect both sides to meet to discuss the charges and the potential for plea agreements before an indictment is handed down.

“Once that (indictment) happens, the opportunity for flexibility is greatly reduced,” said James Wyatt, a prominent Charlotte defense attorney.

Cannon resigned as mayor within hours of his arrest. He is accused of taking payoffs and a Las Vegas trip from FBI agents posing as potential investors in Charlotte real estate during a three-year sting. If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 50 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

While some experts expect a trial, Richard Myers, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches criminal law at UNC School of Law, said the pressure on Cannon to negotiate with his accusers has already started to grow.

“At some point, there will be a serious sit-down with counsels and the defendant, and the prosecutors will say, ‘Here’s what we got. Here’s where you are.’ 

At some point, Myers and Wyatt said, the subject of Cannon cooperating with the investigation will be broached.

How much benefit he gets for any help he provides depends on what he knows about any remaining major targets of the FBI’s probe, Myers said.

“When they ask you to roll, they tend to want you to roll uphill not down, and he was already the mayor.”

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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