First Patrick Cannon said he was guilty. Then he said he was sorry.
In a matter of a few extraordinary minutes, the former mayor of Charlotte faced both his accusers and his community – pleading guilty to a federal corruption charge, then walking out into the glare of a high-noon press conference to apologize to the city he betrayed.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his March 26 arrest, Cannon appeared to battle his emotions as he gave a 218-word statement to a teeming semicircle of reporters and cameras. Charlotte’s new face of public corruption said he had indeed trampled on the public’s trust.
“For that, I am deeply sorry. ... I regret having hurt the city that I love,” Cannon said.
“... I understand the anger, frustration and disappointment that my actions have caused. I can only hope that the life I live from now on will reflect both my remorse and my desire to still make a positive impact upon our city.”
When Cannon finished, one woman in the crowd applauded. An hour later, Cannon’s chief prosecutor did not.
“Mr. Cannon betrayed us all,” U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said.
Cannon tripped and fell in the media crush that awaited him as he walked up to the front doors of the federal courthouse on West Trade Street. At 11:28 a.m., when U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cayer called “The United States vs. Patrick Cannon” into session, five years of the defendant’s admitted ethical stumbles became a matter of public record.
The bureaucratic-sounding charge – honest services wire fraud – belies the seriousness of Cannon’s crime. The 47-year-old Democrat acknowledged taking bribes and other gifts in exchange for using his political influence to help those who paid him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Savage told the crowded courtroom that Cannon, the target of a nearly four-year FBI investigation, accepted seven bribes totaling $50,500 during a 14-month period beginning in January 2013.
Most of those illegal payoffs came from undercover FBI agents posing as out-of-town real estate investors. Cannon also took regular bribes from a Charlotte businessman, now identified as strip club mogul David “Slim” Baucom.
In fact, Tompkins said, Cannon was a mayor and City Council member on retainer – receiving a steady stream of cash and gifts, while being paid extra when something needed to be done.
Throughout the hearing, Cannon stood before Cayer with his attorneys, James Ferguson and Henderson Hill. He wore a dark gray suit, white shirt and a black-and-white striped tie, ending the parade of orange-jumpsuited defendants whose cases had preceded his in court. At several points, Cannon hung his head and appeared at the point of tears.
At 11:32 a.m., the man accused of lying repeatedly to his constituents and the FBI put his hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth.
“You fully understand the charge against you?” Cayer asked Cannon five minutes later.
“Yes sir, your honor,” Cannon replied.
“Are you in fact guilty of the one count?” the judge asked.
“Yes sir, your honor. I am guilty,” Cannon replied.
He will be sentenced later this year. His crime carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Cannon’s actual range of sentence stands now at between 63 and 78 months. That is just a starting point. His case now undergoes a lengthy presentencing examination by federal probation officials who will make a punishment recommendation to Cayer. The judge could add or subtract time from there.
Cannon has also agreed to forfeit assets to match the amount of his bribes.
As part of his plea, Cannon pledged to fully cooperate with the investigation that ultimately disgraced him. In return, prosecutors promise to limit the charges that will help determine his sentence to what Savage read in court.
Randall Eliason, a George Washington University law professor and a former federal prosecutor, estimated Tuesday that Cannon will serve three to four years in prison, depending on his cooperation.
Suffice it to say, the longtime elected official who joked on tape with the FBI agents who were paying him bribes about not looking good in “an orange suit” may indeed wear one. If so, Charlotte’s 55th mayor would be the first sent to prison.
When he is sentenced, Cannon officially becomes a felon, and a public figure who made a career out of soliciting votes will no longer be able to cast one himself.
Cannon’s wife, Trenna, who appears in an FBI affidavit thanking an undercover agent for one of the illegal payments her husband received, did not appear in the courtroom Tuesday.
Monday night, the Cannons attended their son’s baseball game in south Charlotte. Both declined to comment, and Patrick Cannon walked away when approached.
Asked if the former mayor’s wife is still a part of the probe in any way, Tompkins’ spokeswoman said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
Ferguson, who told reporters that neither he nor Cannon would answer questions Tuesday, asked that they respect the privacy of his client’s loved ones.
In his closing remarks, Cannon thanked his friends, family and “the many people whose expressions of unconditional love and support have been, and continue to be, sources of strength and encouragement.”
A staccato burst of applause from a Cannon supporter followed. Then Cannon tried to leave. As was the case in much of his 20-year political career, the cameras followed, all the way to the curb of Trade Street, where Cannon climbed into a black SUV with his lawyers and headed east toward uptown. Hannah Jeffrey, Helen Schwab, Jennifer Rothacker and Rick Rothacker contributed