Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon would on occasion puzzle colleagues and city staff members with his attention to specific issues.
Behind some of those matters were campaign contributors. And while his contributors say they never expected favors or special treatment, they often got it.
That was Cannon’s way, and it was distinctive. He publicly pushed for several of his largest contributors to win specific contracts or tried to give them access to city staffers.
The Observer looked at all of Cannon’s campaign contributions from his last two elections in 2011 and 2013, reviewed City Council transcripts and interviewed a dozen current and former elected officials and staff members, and found the former mayor went the extra mile for some of his biggest donors.
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Cannon, who will be sentenced Tuesday, has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from undercover federal agents and strip-club owner David “Slim” Baucom, who has not been charged but has been interviewed by federal investigators. After Cannon pleaded guilty in June, he apologized for taking money for what he called “constituent services,” including setting up meetings with city officials.
It’s common for campaign donors to have business before the City Council. And council members often vote in favor of projects or policies supported by donors.
But where Cannon differed from many peers is that instead of talking more broadly about policies, he often redirected the conversation to a specific transaction. All of that caught the attention of his peers and left some city staff members wary.
Three years ago, for instance, the Charlotte City Council considered whether to award a bus advertising contract to Titan Advertising. Three officials at the meeting recalled that Cannon seemed particularly interested in the outcome during the meeting.
His focus on the details of the contract “seemed to come out of left field,” one said.
The officials the Observer interviewed asked to not be identified because of the ongoing federal investigation.
The chief executive of a rival company, Gateway Advertising, was a longtime Cannon donor and had recently given him $4,000. That’s the most any individual is allowed to give during an election cycle.
In 2013, the Charlotte City Council appointed four people to the Charlotte Airport Commission, created by the General Assembly to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
One of the picks was Robert Stolz, the chief executive of the Wurth Group’s North American division.
Ten of the 12 City Council officials the Observer interviewed said they had either never heard of him or never met him.
Cannon, then a council member, gave Stolz’s name to then-Mayor Patsy Kinsey. Less than three months earlier, Stolz had written Cannon a $4,000 check for his mayoral bid.
Stolz, who previously donated $4,000 to Anthony Foxx’s mayoral campaign, told the Observer he didn’t expect anything from Cannon. “Of course not,” he said. “I felt like it was important to be involved and to be engaged in the community.”
Stolz said he may have been a relative unknown on the City Council, but said Cannon chose him because of his statewide service, including chairing the state’s Economic Development Board.
Campaign donations are legal as long as they are disclosed and within the prescribed limits. The law forbids a promise of a favor or action in exchange for money. That’s what U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins described at Cannon’s plea hearing as quid pro quo or “this for that.”
With Cannon’s campaign contributors, there is no evidence that Cannon accepted money in exchange for direct favors. And no one except Cannon has been charged since he was arrested in March. City Manager Ron Carlee has repeatedly assured the public that he has found no evidence that any policy or staff member was compromised.
But the federal affidavit that described Cannon’s behavior with undercover FBI agents echoes his public enthusiasm for helping people who helped him. Tompkins said Cannon “sold his official influence for both specific help and on an as-needed basis to those who secretly paid him.”
According to the affidavit, he offered to help agents posing as out-of-town businessmen navigate city bureaucracy by introducing them to city officials and clearing obstacles for permits and rezonings.
Cannon also admitted he took $2,000 cash from Baucom. The federal government said Cannon asked a fellow City Council member to help mitigate the impact of a light-rail construction project on one of Baucom’s strip clubs.
Cannon and his attorney could not be reached for this story.
Campaign money didn’t come easy
Cannon wasn’t as effective in raising campaign money as Foxx, his predecessor.
He raised $269,000 for his 2013 mayoral race; his Republican opponent, Edwin Peacock, took in $393,000. Foxx raised $642,000 in 2009 and $820,000 in 2011; his GOP opponent, John Lassiter, raised $601,000 in 2009.
The wealthy and politically active Harris family, former banker Hugh McColl, and former Duke Energy chief executive Jim Rogers didn’t give money to Cannon after donating to Foxx. Both Cannon and Foxx are Democrats.
Developer Cameron Harris, a former chair of the county Democratic Party, told the Observer he had entered a business deal with Cannon, and said the deal ended up being “shady.”
Most of Cannon’s largest donors had specific business coming before the city, such as a contract under review or a rezoning.
The owners of the Uptown Cabaret on Morehead Street, who were seeking to redevelop their property in 2010, were among Cannon’s largest donors. They gave him more than $17,000 during his last two campaigns.
Cannon attended at least one meeting with city staff in which the strip-club owners were seeking help understanding city rules about redeveloping their land.
An owner of an oil and gas company based in Kazakhstan gave Cannon $4,000 in 2013, and his wife also gave $4,000. They invested in a group led by Bert Hesse that wanted to build a movie studio at the former Eastland Mall and needed the city’s cooperation and money.
Hesse, who didn’t donate to Cannon, said he never understood why Cannon attended private meetings about the studio proposal with his investors.
A focus on transactions
The former mayor’s behavior on behalf of donors had made city staff and colleagues uneasy.
Several city staff members said they were wary when Cannon would speak from the dais about a specific contract. He appeared to have an agenda either for or against a company, rather than focusing on the larger debate. A former city official said Cannon’s style was “more transactional” in that he focused on a specific transaction rather than policy issues.
Some of Cannon’s actions for donors occurred during regular business meetings when supporters could witness his support. In other instances, the former mayor worked for campaign supporters behind the scenes.
City officials said Cannon – more than other council members – was more interested in lobbying for businesses or individuals. When Cannon returned to the council in 2009 after a four-year absence, he brought caterers to the 15th floor of the Government Center, encouraging the city to hire them. That was unusual, one official said.
Some were furious earlier this year when Carlee hired Cannon’s former campaign aide as a $90,000 consultant on a 10-month contract. They believed Cannon asked the city manager to hire his campaign worker. Carlee said that didn’t happen.
Council reconsiders ethics policy
In the wake of Cannon’s arrest, the City Council publicly discussed whether it should review its ethics policy, including how council members interact with city staff. How could they ensure a routine request wouldn’t be viewed as an order?
So far, a council committee has discussed changes that include a more detailed financial disclosure form. But there has been no movement on whether to limit council members’ discussions with staff or whether council members should disclose who is lobbying them for access.
At-large council member David Howard, who chairs the committee, said limiting elected officials’ interaction with staff would be counterproductive. He said it’s important for council members to represent constituents’ views.
And, he said, Cannon was different in how he worked on behalf of constituents.
“We don’t take money for it,” Howard said.
Staff writers Ely Portillo and Rick Rothacker contributed.