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Patrick Cannon scandal could propel change over control of Charlotte airport

During last year’s fight over control of the Charlotte airport, those who supported creation of a new authority voiced concerns about how city officials were running the airport but never publicly mentioned a possible criminal investigation.

Some of those supporters now say they had heard rumors of a possible government probe, and it helped fuel their drive to create an independent commission to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The legislation passed last year, but the new commission remains tied up in court.

Commission supporters expect last week’s arrest of former Mayor Patrick Cannon will help buttress their case that the city should not be in charge of the airport, a vital economic engine for the region. They’re likely to revive the issue when the General Assembly meets again in May, they say.

“I think the legislature will now see that there was some validity to the concerns that were raised,” said former Charlotte City Council member Stan Campbell, a driving force behind the legislation.

The charges against Cannon have raised questions about the integrity of local government, although city and county officials have worked to assure the public that their operations are not corrupt and are working smoothly.

The allegations could reignite a monthslong fight over the airport that had seemingly cooled in recent weeks. Cannon had been working on a compromise with Gov. Pat McCrory, an effort that now could be jeopardized. The pair had talked as recently as Wednesday, the day Cannon was arrested.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said he continues to be concerned about a legislative proposal that has the airport director reporting to 13 politically appointed commission members, rather than the longtime approach of reporting to the city manager. The FBI’s allegations against Cannon include accusations that he received payments from undercover agents in exchange for promises to use his influence as a public official to help fictional businesses and development projects.

“What happened this week reaffirms why the city department directors do not report to the mayor,” Carlee said.

State Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat, said he did not hear any rumors of an investigation last year and that it was “irresponsible” to inject the issue into the airport debate.

“I think we ought to be focused on getting a compromise that puts the issue of the airport to rest,” Graham said. “And outside interference like what happened last week has nothing to do with that. We should continue to move forward.”

Driving force for change

During the legislative fight last year, a Republican-led state legislature in Raleigh passed a bill to create a new, independent commission to run the airport instead of being operated as a city department, a move the city fiercely opposed.

Although the commission was created, the city sued to block it and the commission remains powerless. The fight is tied up in court and with the Federal Aviation Administration, with no clear resolution in sight.

Although the commission doesn’t have permission to run the airport, the 13 commissioners are meeting monthly. This month, commission members piled into a shuttle bus and rode around Charlotte Douglas touring runways, the new rail cargo yard and new parking decks.

Longtime aviation director Jerry Orr lost his job last year in the airport fight, and he was replaced by Brent Cagle, a city employee. Cagle also serves as interim executive director of the commission.

Campbell, a Republican who served on the City Council from 1987 to 1995, wouldn’t disclose details, but said he had heard about a possible investigation of the city as early as late 2012. “When we heard the rumors floating around and saw what was happening at the airport, we thought we would do what we could to protect it,” he said.

A main driver of the fight was concern that city officials were trying to force Orr into retirement, he said. Campbell said he was also concerned that city officials were eager to take money from the airport for pet projects such as a streetcar line.

Campbell took his concerns to his friend, state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who introduced the legislation in February 2013. Not everyone he talked to in the legislature believed the rumors about the possible investigation, Campbell said.

Anthony Foxx was mayor when the airport fight began but stepped down in July to become U.S. transportation secretary. Cannon became mayor pro tem in December 2011 and was later elected mayor in November 2013.

In an interview, Rucho said he had heard rumors of a possible investigation, but knew nothing substantiated. While the rumors played a role in deciding to back an airport authority, Rucho said it was not the driving factor. Other factors included the city’s decision to transfer airport security to Charlotte police.

“We were trying to find a way to … insulate the airport from any type of cronyism,” he said. “It was a collection of everything. The priority of keeping that airport economically viable is absolutely critical to this city and the region.”

Rep. Ruth Samuelson, the Republican conference leader, said she heard rumors about an investigation near the end of last year’s legislative session, but wasn’t sure whether they were true.

“I said I don’t deal with rumors,” she recalled. “I’m not even sure I trusted the source.”

Orr said he, too, had heard rumors about an investigation of some city official. He was interviewed by the FBI in the course of some type of inquiry, but said he wasn’t aware of its nature.

“You never know exactly what was going on. Sometimes you get some hints,” he said. “Nobody said what they’re investigating for or about.”

Orr said concerns about an investigation were a factor in pushing for a change in control of the airport.

“That’s why you want an airport authority,” Orr said. “That’s why you want your governing board to be focused on the business, running the airport.”

To be sure, airport authorities are not insulated from corruption. Some experts believe the separation from local government can make them more susceptible to wrongdoing. Authorities typically aren’t audited as rigorously as cities, which could make it possible for unethical practices, such as collecting bribes from companies seeking work.

McCrory still wants deal

Cannon and McCrory had been leading the effort to find a compromise on the contentious issues of who should run the airport. Last month, when the chairman of the airport commission, Robert Stolz, said he thought compromise talks had failed, Cannon shot back a message saying he “completely disagreed” with that idea.

“I do not believe that we have exhausted all options and remain hopeful that city and state leaders can find common ground,” Cannon said in February. McCrory and Cannon had been negotiating for more than three months about the future of Charlotte Douglas, in what Cannon said were productive talks.

Stolz could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Although there weren’t any compromises formally advanced, a solution could have involved a beefed-up version of the airport’s former advisory committee, which the city disbanded after the airport commission was created last year.

Josh Ellis, a spokesman for McCrory, said Cannon’s departure does not affect the governor’s desire to reach a compromise. McCrory would like to reach a deal before the legislature returns in May, Ellis said.

Orr said he believes the legislature will make a move on airport governance in the coming session. Rucho said the vociferous opposition from those who wanted the airport to remain under city control likely will be tempered by the news about Cannon.

“Everybody was saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, you don’t have to fix it.’ Now what you’re seeing is that there can be problems out there,” Rucho said. “People have had their eyes opened.”

Campbell said plans for the legislative session haven’t been developed.

“The city proposal hasn’t changed,” he said. “They want it to go back the way it was. I don’t think that’s possible now.” Staff writers Ely Portillo and Jim Morrill contributed.

Rothacker: 704-358-5170; Twitter: @rickrothacker
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