Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison Tuesday for his role in a bold bribery scheme in which he accepted a suitcase stuffed with cash in the mayor’s office, besmirching the city’s reputation for clean government.
Cannon, 47, was sentenced to 44 months by U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney at the federal courthouse in uptown Charlotte after a morning in which Cannon, who rose from the housing projects to the city’s highest post, admitted regret and asked for leniency.
“You’re a good man, a very good man, but you have made serious mistakes,” said Whitney, a former federal prosecutor. “This court must send a message that public corruption is unacceptable and will be severely punished.”
Whitney ordered Cannon to forfeit $50,500 – less $7,680 already collected – to cover the government’s investigative expenses and a $10,000 fine. Cannon will be able to report to a federal prison near Charlotte for family reasons and will be recommended for an alcohol-abuse program. Whitney did not give a specific reporting date.
Whitney rejected recommendations of federal prosecutors who proposed a lighter sentence – 37 months – because of Cannon’s cooperation and acceptance of a quick guilty plea.
“He was caught red-handed,” the judge said. “He didn’t have much of a case, did he?”
Saying his wife Trenna, his children and his native city bore the brunt of his misconduct, Cannon appealed to Whitney before sentencing for a “forgiving spirit,” saying his role in the crime – which included a trip to Las Vegas with FBI agents posing as developers – appalled even himself.
“I let a lot of people down,” Cannon told the court before sentencing, his voice strong and unwavering. “I have repented and asked God for forgiveness.”
Since his arrest, Cannon said, he has had a “knot of remorse and regret” in his stomach. He said he resigned his office the same day as his arrest “to let the business of Charlotte operate without a gray cloud over it.”
Despite their recommendation of a lighter sentence, federal prosecutors argued that Cannon had deeply damaged the city’s reputation. “This is a harm that will take a long time to heal,” said Anne Tompkins, U.S. attorney.
“It’s not a one-time lapse of judgment. In fact, we would argue his conduct became more brazen as time went on,” she said.
Judge on corruption
For nearly an hour, Cannon stood before Whitney as the judge went through his rationale for the sentence.
Public corruption intensifies public cynicism toward the political process, Whitney said. “Faith in government rests on the integrity of government,” he said.
Whitney agreed that while Cannon, a Democrat, served the public for most of his life, he showed a pattern of misbehavior in recent years. He told Cannon, “You have seriously tarnished the city’s image.”
Whitney said that Charlotte is not known as one of the nation’s most corrupt cities, citing Chicago, New Orleans and Newark. “And let us be sure we never make that list,” he added.
Whitney acknowledged Cannon’s rise from poverty to prominence. “You were arguably Charlotte’s model citizen.” But along the path, he said, Cannon succumbed to “raw greed.”
“You seemed to embrace the shortcuts to success in the last 18 months,” Whitney told Cannon. “This is a tragic day. All sentencings are tragic. But yours is a little different because of how far you have fallen.”
Faced up to five years
Cannon, the first Charlotte mayor to be convicted of corruption since the office was established in 1853, faced a sentence of up to five years under federal guidelines.
His attorneys argued for leniency, contending that his recent behavior is an aberration in a life otherwise dedicated to public service.
“Mr. Cannon has in so many different ways punished himself as effectively as any outside source could,” said his attorney Henderson Hill, adding that Cannon’s remorse is genuine. “If punishment were the goal of this proceeding, this court’s work would be done.”
Hill acknowledged that deterrence was another goal of the court, though he said that in Cannon’s case the sentence should reflect his public-spirited attitude for most of his life.
“Patrick has understood from an early age his obligation to give back,” Hill said. Even as a child, Cannon mentored other kids and volunteered at community centers, he said.
Hill said that as a child, Cannon swallowed a dozen straight pins and his recovery was considered a “medical miracle.” Cannon’s family treated this as a sign he was meant to do more with his life, Hill said.
Since his arrest, Cannon has been remorseful, Hill said. “Every step he has taken since then has been an attempt to make amends for his conduct,” he said.
Hill referred to Charlotte’s reputation of clean government and said Cannon regretted what his actions have done. “If there’s one thing Patrick feels badly about, it’s that his opportunistic behavior has put a smear on hard-working public officials and hard-working employees,” Hill said.
Cannon’s two teenage children have likewise been affected by the case, Hill said. “Trenna is worried, Patrick Cannon is worried, that this misconduct could have a disproportionate impact on his children.”
One character witness was Leonard Wheeler, a safety for the Panthers in 1999, who said he was impressed by Cannon’s close relationship with his children. “He loved to spend time with his kids … they love being around their dad,” Wheeler said in a videotaped statement played for the court. “I wish I had a dad like that growing up.”
When Cannon was 5, his own father, Thomas Odom, was found dead of a gunshot wound outside a vacant westside school. Cannon was raised by his mother, Carmen, who worked on a truck assembly line in south Charlotte. They lived in public housing.
In his statement to the court, Cannon recalled the moment he met with his family after his arrest.
“I feared my heart would give out when I told them their dad had sinned. I cried. They cried.”
Cannon thanked the court for hearing him and asked for a “forgiving spirit toward me,” adding that he loves his children and hopes they learn from his plea.
“I failed as a father. I failed as a husband,” Cannon said. “I failed as a servant-leader. I failed as a citizen.”
Mix-up on time
Cannon, dressed conservatively in a navy blue suit with a blue-striped tie, arrived at the sentencing hearing Tuesday morning with his attorney James Ferguson, and threaded without comment through a phalanx of reporters and photographers. Trenna Cannon, Cannon’s wife of 18 years who didn’t attend court when the former mayor pleaded guilty, entered separately.
Tuesday’s proceedings got off to an awkward start with a mix-up about the time of the hearing. Cannon’s legal team told Whitney that they thought it was scheduled for 9:30 a.m., 15 minutes later than the time set on the court’s docket.
Whitney said they could be fined for the oversight, but let it go and ordered the hearing to proceed.
He then asked Cannon whether he had reviewed the charge and if he were guilty of the one felony count.
“Yes sir, your honor, I am,” Cannon replied.
‘Lines got blurry’
Ferguson, a prominent Charlotte attorney who brokered a plea deal with federal prosecutors, told Whitney how Cannon fought through the loss of his father to graduate from college and become a city leader.
“Unselfishly, he devoted himself to helping other people. That’s what drove him into public life,” Ferguson said.
He noted that the allegations involving Cannon didn’t begin until 2009 and added: “We are not talking about humongous sums of money.” He said Cannon himself couldn’t explain why he did what he did.
He praised Cannon’s immediate resignation as a sign of contrition. “He gave up one of the most important things in his life because of his shame and his guilt,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said so far the investigation has not turned up evidence of a corrupt system in Charlotte city government. “Whatever was going on with Patrick Cannon, there was not evidence of broad corruption going on in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
As for Cannon, he said, there was no elaborate scheme but a “flaw that led to this tragedy … The lines got blurry,” Ferguson said.
Cannon’s first character witness was his former Sunday school teacher, Mildred Smith Campbell of Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church on Statesville Road and a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principal. “He always wanted to be somebody really good,” she said. After his arrest, she said, Cannon came to visit and embraced her, saying “I’m sorry; I’m just sorry.”
His remorse is real, she said. “It’s almost like Patrick didn’t know how he got here. He’s sorry for all that happened.”
Cannon was arrested March 26 and accused of accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from FBI undercover agents, who posed as out-of-town developers. Authorities said Cannon also solicited $1.2 million in additional kickbacks during a meeting in the mayor’s office.
FBI agents, posing as developers, told Cannon they needed his help in getting approvals for a mixed-used project to be built along a transit line.
As part of his guilty plea, Cannon also admitted taking $2,000 in cash from a local businessman who has been identified by the Observer as strip club owner David “Slim” Baucom. The businessman was seeking help in mitigating the impact to one of his clubs from construction of the Lynx Blue Line extension on North Tryon Street, according to the federal government.
No one else has been charged in the corruption case that led to Cannon’s resignation. Tompkins indicated Tuesday that the investigation is still open and would not comment on whether other people would be charged with crimes.
Cannon resigned the day he was arrested and pleaded guilty in federal court on June 3 to one count of honest services wire fraud after agreeing to cooperate with the federal investigation.
Cannon faced a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Whitney noted that the million-dollar bribe Cannon was accused of trying to solicit in the mayor’s office was not part of the plea agreement and would not be factored into his sentencing. Cannon’s acceptance of responsibility and his timely plea were factors in sentencing, Whitney said.
Other key cases
Whitney recited the sentences of several other former N.C. public officials who were found guilty of public corruption, including former elections director Bill Culp (30 months for accepting kickbacks from voting machine contractors), former state agriculture commissioner Meg Scott Phipps (48 months for accepting bribes from State Fair operators) and former House Speaker Jim Black (63 months for influence peddling).
What they and Cannon had in common, he said, was that they “breached the public trust for personal gain.”
Whitney said that certain benevolent forces – among them the State Board of Elections, responsible public officials and investigative reporters from the Raleigh News & Observer – had helped over recent years to expose “a dirty, dark underbelly of corruption” in North Carolina that the state’s citizens need to be wary of.
Cannon’s arrest came in the wake of other high-profile political corruption cases:
In July, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, was convicted on 20 counts of wire fraud, bribery and money laundering before and after Hurricane Katrina and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
In 2013, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat, admitted embezzling $750,000 in campaign money and blamed his bipolar depression. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years, and in October 2013 reported to Butner Correctional Center, about 30 miles north of Durham.
In 2011, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was convicted on 18 federal corruption counts that included trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated when he was elected president. Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, will be sentenced in January on federal corruption charges. Rob Jones and Elizabeth Leland contributed to this report.