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Sheraton owner turned to Patrick Cannon for help with liquor license

By Ely Portillo and Elizabeth Leland
elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com
MAYOR FORUM
Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
Patrick Cannon

Three days after the Sheraton uptown lost its liquor license because of gunfire at a late-night party in March featuring rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, one of the hotel’s owners emailed then-Mayor Patrick Cannon:

“Hello Patrick I am heading to the airport in one hour and did not get any answers from anyone regarding the liquor license suspension. I am lost for words.”

The email is the second indication that Cannon could have been involved in helping the Sheraton with ABC obstacles, despite not having any direct authority over that state privilege. A source with knowledge of the federal investigation into the former mayor told the Observer on Friday that a hotel representative once bragged that Cannon had helped the Sheraton with alcohol permits.

Cannon pleaded guilty to public corruption earlier this month. In a federal affidavit that recounted the FBI sting, he told undercover agents that he could help with liquor licenses as well as building permits.

Cannon relied on the Sheraton in several ways. He used it for his post-election victory party when he was elected mayor in November, and also for his mayoral job fair in February. His company, E-Z Parking, handled the hotel’s parking deck.

Hotel owner George Dfouni, who lives in New Jersey, said he never sought improper favors from Cannon. “There was a shooting in his city. He’s the mayor of his city. I don’t know who to reach out to. If anything happens, usually in the city, you reach out to whoever you know, and I knew him,” Dfouni said. “That wasn’t a favor.”

Asked by the Observer in April whether he sought help from Cannon with his ABC problems, Dfouni did not mention his emails to Cannon. “What do I need the mayor for, with all due respect to the mayor?” he said then.

The Observer obtained Dfouni’s emails to Cannon through a public records request from the city of Charlotte. The release of the emails to the public was delayed by the federal investigation.

Shots fired at party

The Sheraton is on South McDowell Street on the edge of uptown. Formerly known as the Adam’s Mark and the Blake Hotel, it is a popular venue for conventions and parties.

As the last game of the CIAA basketball tournament was being played on Saturday night, March 1, thousands of revelers began gathering in the hotel’s first-floor Symphony Ballroom. In addition to Combs, the party featured performances by rappers Fabolous and Future.

Around 2 a.m. Sunday morning, March 2, gunfire erupted in a gated-off raised VIP area near the stage. Two people were shot, another was assaulted with a champagne bottle and several were injured while trying to flee. An ALE agent said in a report that he smelled marijuana and saw multiple liquor containers.

On March 3, the state suspended the hotel’s liquor license.

Without the license, the Sheraton owners faced significant revenue loss.

Reaching out to the mayor

Over two days, Dfouni emailed Cannon three times. On March 5, he sent Cannon a copy of the letter revoking the hotel’s ABC permit. On March 6, he sent a grainy photograph of the ballroom shooting scene. Later that day, Dfouni emailed in apparent frustration at getting no answers.

Dfouni told the Observer on Friday that he got to know Cannon at a mayoral victory party at the Sheraton in November.

His correspondence went to Cannon’s official city email account, and Dfouni said he never heard back from Cannon.

There was no response from Cannon to Dfouni on that account. But Cannon often used personal email accounts for city business. He also had at least one personal cellphone he used for city business, in addition to his city-issued cellphone.

City Manager Ron Carlee said it’s common for constituents to contact elected officials about “virtually any issue that relates to a constituent’s concerns or issues.”

“Typically, the elected representative will ask someone on staff to assess the issue and assist if possible,” Carlee said. “It is the expectation that staff will provide assistance, regardless the source of the inquiry, but only to the extent that the assistance provided is consistent with policy, law and good judgment. The same assistance should be equally available to someone who contacts staff directly.”

When asked about Dfouni’s email to Cannon, Carlee said it would be inappropriate to comment because the matter could be related to the federal investigation into Cannon.

Cannon resigned as mayor in March after being arrested on public corruption charges. Earlier this month, he pleaded guilty to taking bribes in exchange for using his political influence to help those who paid him. Most of the illegal payoffs made public came from undercover FBI agents posing as out-of-town real estate investors. Cannon also admitted taking bribes from a Charlotte businessman, now identified as strip club owner David “Slim” Baucom.

Cannon, who has not been sentenced, did not respond to a request for comment Friday about the Sheraton’s license. He is cooperating with the FBI as part of his plea agreement.

A temporary permit

Dfouni said he emailed Cannon because he was frustrated that no one had replied to his questions about the suspension of the hotel’s liquor license. He also said he was trying to provide investigators with information, such as security camera footage of the shooters, and hoped Cannon could forward the information to the proper authorities.

“The local (Alcoholic Beverage Commission) people, I thought they report to him,” Dfouni said. “But they said they report to the state.”

Dfouni said the issue was soon cleared up when representatives of the state ABC commission returned his messages. He flew to Raleigh and met with state officials.

On March 11, the Sheraton’s temporary liquor permit was reinstated.

State officials have said the Sheraton followed proper procedure. Michael Herring, chief administrator at the N.C. ABC Commission, told the Observer in April that the commission granted the permit after hotel representatives vowed to take steps to avoid similar problems.

“I’m not expecting any more violations at the Sheraton,” Herring said. “I think they realize the permits are in their name and they bear sole responsibility for the property.”

About Cannon, Herring said: “No one here knows Mayor Cannon. Nor has Mayor Cannon made a phone call here to my knowledge.”

A troubled past

The suspension of the Sheraton’s liquor license after the shootings was not the first time the hotel had come to the attention of local ALE agents who enforce the state’s alcoholic beverage control laws.

Alcohol Law Enforcement agent Omar Qureshi said in a report that he was investigating possible alcohol advertising irregularities involving an appearance by rapper Nelly at the Sheraton on Friday, Feb. 28. He said he discovered that the new owners of the Sheraton had not gotten a new ABC permit after they changed the property from the Blake hotel to the Sheraton brand.

As part of the permitting process, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s ABC unit conducts an investigation and issues an “opinion” to the state ABC commission about whether a hotel, bar or restaurant should be awarded a liquor permit. The police opinion is simply a recommendation. The final decision lies with the commission.

In November 2013, police refused to accept the Sheraton’s application or issue an opinion because the hotel did not have building and zoning approvals, Qureshi said in his report. He said a CMPD detective, Matt Lewis, had talked with Larry Parks, a representative for the hotel’s owners.

“Larry Parks made comments to the CMPD secretary to go ahead and sign the paperwork anyway because he knew someone at the ABC Commission who would take care of it,” Qureshi wrote.

CMPD still refused to accept the application, and the state did not grant a permit. Lewis could not be reached for comment.

Herring, the ABC administrator, has said that Parks has no influence over any of his staff. Herring did say he knows who Parks is, and that Parks has helped businesses get established and has sent representatives to Raleigh with the paperwork businesses need for ABC permits.

Parks appears to have ties to the family of Slim Baucom. U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins described Cannon as being on retainer with the strip club operator. Until recently, Parks was listed as “contract manager” on the website for Baucom Group, a construction company owned by one of Baucom’s sons, W.D. Baucom.

W.D. Baucom told the Observer in April that Parks hadn’t worked for the company for three years, and was listed only because Baucom hadn’t “kept up with my website like I should.”

In 2012, Parks was served in a federal lawsuit at the corporate offices of MAL Entertainment – Slim Baucom’s company – on North Tryon Street in the University City area. According to North Carolina corporate records, Parks was also briefly involved with an investment company with Slim Baucom in Gastonia in 1996.

Parks could not be reached for comment.

Ready for large events?

Qureshi said in his report that after he discovered in February that the Sheraton didn’t have a permit, he went to the hotel to talk with Parks. In the bar, he noticed an ABC permit that was posted but invalid. Several patrons were drinking alcoholic beverages.

The hotel was still being renovated, and Qureshi said in the report that he didn’t think the Sheraton was “ready for the type of large events planned for the weekend.”

Nevertheless, on Feb. 28, the day of Nelly’s performance, the state ABC Commission issued a temporary liquor permit. The event that night passed without incident.

But two days later, at the party featuring Combs, gunfire broke out. No arrests have been made.

After an eight-day suspension following the shooting, the state ABC commission issued the Sheraton a temporary permit good through May 2015. CMPD still has not issued an opinion about whether the Sheraton should be allowed to serve liquor.

Police Chief Rodney Monroe said Saturday that his department “played no role in the re-issuance of the Sheraton’s ABC license other than sending, upon their request, a copy of our police report and investigation concerning the shooting that occurred during the CIAA.”

Federal interest in hotel?

County emails obtained by the Observer, also through a public records request, suggest that the Sheraton could be of interest to federal authorities in their investigation of Cannon.

In April, a Mecklenburg County information technology manager requested a review of permits, inspection records, zoning variances and other documents related to the Sheraton and more than a dozen other properties, including strip clubs owned by Slim Baucom. The request covered documents from Nov. 3, 2009 – the day Cannon was elected to City Council after a five-year hiatus – to the present.

The county emails do not indicate why the IT manager wanted the information, but federal authorities have requested documents under a wide-ranging subpoena issued after Cannon’s arrest. County Attorney Marvin Bethune and a U.S. Attorney spokeswoman declined to comment.

Ames Alexander, Steve Harrison, Cleve Wootson, Gavin Off and Rick Rothacker contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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