Federal investigators said Tuesday that they are following leads in their probe of former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon to determine whether public corruption and bribery go deeper in the city’s government.
Cannon’s plea deal means he now shifts from being a target to an informant: Under the terms, Cannon must cooperate fully and truthfully or face a harsher sentence.
That could leave Cannon’s closest associates wary about what might emerge. For example, on Tuesday, Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes defended his attempts to help a strip club owner now accused of bribing Cannon.
The city has not released reams of public records that the Observer and other media have requested that could illuminate city departments’ interactions with council members, particularly Cannon.
Federal investigators are believed to be looking into what Cannon claimed in a March affidavit to influence: zoning, building and liquor permits, public safety agencies and the county’s tourism and hospitality sector.
The FBI has interviewed taxi drivers about Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s taxi cab contract, which the city has decided to re-bid in the wake of pay-to-play scheme allegations, which involved Cannon.
City and Mecklenburg County employees also have talked to the FBI. County Attorney Marvin Bethune and County Manager Dena Diorio have spoken with investigators. City Attorney Bob Hagemann confirmed the FBI has interviewed city officials.
The March 26 federal affidavit quoted Cannon in phone conversations with Carlee and Planning Director Debra Campbell. Campbell has said in response that she has “always demonstrated the highest level of professionalism and integrity.”
“We need to determine whether this bribery scheme was only Cannon-deep and Cannon-wide, or if it extended beyond the mayor’s office,” said U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, speaking after Cannon pleaded guilty earlier in the day.
John Strong, FBI special agent in charge for North Carolina, said agents “are looking into related allegations, which could result in more charges and additional parties.”
Both officials said they will continue to root out public corruption, and Strong said his office was interested in receiving tips from the public. An FBI spokeswoman said public corruption is the agency’s No. 1 criminal priority and it’s always looking for credible information about potential wrongdoing across the state.
But Strong and Tompkins didn’t take questions after their news conference and said they couldn’t comment on any specifics of the ongoing investigation. They left questions such as why Cannon first came to their attention unanswered. Strong thanked a local law enforcement partner for the tip.
As part of the probe, federal investigators have subpoenaed a broad swath of documents from city and county government. Tompkins’ office has asked that documents not be released to the public if they could “interfere with a fair trial, prejudice the due administration of justice or ... implicate potentially innocent persons.”
Carlee said the city wants to fulfill the records requests. Before releasing any documents, city attorneys will advise the U.S. attorney’s office.
“We’re giving them a chance to see,” Carlee said. “Unless they have a major issue that they would be willing to go to court for, we’re going to release (the records).”
County attorney Marvin Bethune said Mecklenburg has provided information to federal investigators and continues to cooperate. “The request that we continue to not provide public records requests has not been lifted,” he said. “I think they continue to investigate.”
Undercover agents and bribes
Tompkins spent much of the news conference outlining the allegations that led to Cannon’s arrest on March 26 after a nearly four-year investigation. On Tuesday, Cannon pleaded guilty to one federal charge of honest services wire fraud.
Tompkins said Cannon was a public servant whose promises to help various businesses “came with a price tag.”
“Cannon engaged in a bribery scheme through which he sold his official influence for both specific help and on an as-needed basis to those who secretly paid him,” Tompkins said.
Tompkins called Cannon’s acceptance of a $20,000 cash bribe from undercover agents posing as developers in the mayor’s office in February a “bold move” and a “brazen event.” That was the final bribe undercover agents gave Cannon before his March 26 arrest.
The former mayor’s actions, Tompkins said, “stunned and rightfully angered” citizens of Charlotte.
“Mr. Cannon’s corrupt actions betrayed all of us,” said Tompkins, who stood with a battery of FBI agents and federal prosecutors who worked on the case.
In new allegations outlined in a federal charging document filed on Monday, prosecutors also said Cannon took bribes from an adult entertainment club owner, identified as “Businessman #1.”
On Monday, the Observer identified the businessman as David “Slim” Baucom, owner of a chain of local strip clubs, including Twin Peeks on North Tryon Street. The club was demolished to make way for the Blue Line last year but received a zoning approval that allowed it to be rebuilt on the remainder of the lot.
According to the charging document, the city needed to buy the businessman’s club to accommodate the 9.3-mile Lynx Blue Line light-rail extension. He sought Cannon’s help and allegedly paid Cannon $2,000 cash in January 2013. Baucom faces no charges in the case. In exchange, Cannon lobbied a City Council member, Barnes, for support and contacted city officials on the club owner’s behalf.
The document also says Cannon “willfully failed to disclose the extent of his relationship” with the businessman to the city and county employees he contacted on his behalf.
City helps Twin Peeks
Emails obtained by the Observer through a public records request show that the city gave Baucom permission to rebuild the club on the same property in January 2013, the same month prosecutors say Cannon received the $2,000 bribe.
The question of what to do with Twin Peeks occupied staff for months, as they wrangled over how to keep the club in business while meeting the needs of the Blue Line, the emails show.
Barnes was involved in pushing for Twin Peeks to stay on the site. In a January 23, 2013, email from CATS project director Danny Rogers to Charlotte planning director Debra Campbell and other staff, Rogers reiterated that they needed to find a way to keep the club on the North Tryon Street property.
“Considering Councilman Barnes preference for this establishment to stay at the same location, rebuilding is best for the project, because it poses the least risk to the schedule,” Rogers wrote.
“With that said, we need to get the property owner and Mr. Baucom an interpretation showing that the existing variance will suffice for the business to re-open in the new building at the same address.”
Campbell told zoning administrator Katrina Young to make the request “a priority,” emails show.
On Tuesday, Barnes issued a statement defending his actions regarding Twin Peeks.
“I never pressured or persuaded our staff to arrive at any particular conclusion or to do anything special for Twin Peeks or any other business,” he wrote. “I asked our staff to contact the businesses, develop an understanding of the scope of the problems and determine whether there was anything we could do to help.”
Barnes said he had done the same for other businesses that were concerned about the impact of the Blue Line on their property.
Baucom did not return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
Charles Linder, through a company called Allstates Construction, owns the Twin Peeks property and leased the building to Baucom. He said he was not aware of any connections between Cannon and Baucom and said he was unhappy with the destruction of the building, which has not been rebuilt.
“Dave is a good person,” said Linder, who lives in Myrtle Beach. “I don’t know nothing about his ties with anybody, but I can’t see how it benefited him over there.”
Staff writers Ames Alexander and Michael Gordon contributed