After accusing former Mayor Patrick Cannon of accepting bribes last month, the FBI almost immediately began hunting the money by seizing computers, phones and financial records from Cannon’s home and business, newly released records show.
According to search warrants made public by federal prosecutors on Wednesday, FBI agents also combed the mayor’s offices.
There, they found what has become a well-known piece of luggage: the brown Fossil briefcase that the FBI says held a $20,000 bribe Cannon took from an undercover agent last month on the 15th floor of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
At Cannon’s home, agents also toted away thousands of dollars in cash and a semi-automatic pistol.
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Cannon was arrested on public corruption charges March 26 and resigned from office later that day. He is accused of taking almost $50,000 in bribes, including cash, a Las Vegas trip and use of a luxury SouthPark apartment. An FBI affidavit filed when Cannon was arrested says the mayor also solicited an additional $1.25 million bribe during a Feb. 21 meeting in his office at the Government Center.
Cannon had been a “primary subject” of an undercover FBI investigation since 2011. If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 50 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.
James Wyatt, a prominent Charlotte defense attorney, said the FBI’s seizure of Cannon’s financial records is typical in public corruption cases. If the mayor took bribes, he said, investigators need to find where they went.
“What Cannon did with the money is important because it could form the basis for a money-laundering charge, which could increase his potential sentence,” Wyatt said. “Financial records can also be a way to verify the receipt of a bribe, by having it deposited into an account or to see if it was used in some other traceable way.”
Within minutes of Cannon’s arrest, the FBI swooped down on Cannon’s company, EZ Parking at 312 W. Trade St., where Cannon’s business partner Jeffrey Feemster accepted the warrant. There, agents walked out with computers, tax returns, financial records from Cannon’s mayoral campaign, business cards, check stubs, phone message books and other documents.
Later that day, they also searched Cannon’s home in Ballantyne, where his mother, Carmen, was served with the warrant. Agents say they found a Glock 10mm handgun and ammunition, and $7,680 in cash. They also seized bank statements and other financial records, along with cellphones, computers and Cannon’s passport.
The Fossil briefcase? Agents say one was found on the second shelf of a credenza in the mayor’s office. The warrant says they also collected a printed Feb. 19 email from Amani Abdul to Cannon’s mayoral scheduler, Peggy Huffman.
Why the FBI was interested in the email is unclear.
The date of the email matches a key moment in the FBI affidavit: That’s the day Cannon allegedly talked to an undercover agent to arrange a meeting two days later in the mayor’s office with another agent posing as a potential investor. The affidavit says the Feb. 21 meeting ended with Cannon taking the briefcase stuffed with cash.
The affidavit also says Cannon had suggested the undercover agent use one of his campaign aides for real estate help.
The same campaign aide later communicated with the agents about Cannon’s desired access to the SouthPark apartment, the affidavit says. Agents reported that Cannon used the apartment twice after receiving a key in December.
On her LinkedIn page, Abdul describes herself as development director at Urban Equity Advisors, a Realty firm. She moved to Charlotte in 2011, the year the FBI intensified its investigation of Cannon.
Reached by phone Thursday, Abdul said she was in charge of fundraising events and expenses for Cannon’s mayoral campaign. She described Cannon as a friend and said she has not talked with the FBI. She said she had not been to the SouthPark apartment.
“I’m sure I’m not implicated in anything,” she said.
Following the money
In its affidavit, the FBI claims Cannon took five different payments from undercover agents between January 2013 and February this year. The transactions took several forms.
In the first, Cannon allegedly received a $12,500 zero-interest, cash investment into a company he told an agent he was starting.
On another occasion, Cannon is accused of requesting a campaign contribution before traveling to Las Vegas to woo potential foreign investors, who actually were more undercover FBI agents.
The agent who arranged the trip refused to pay Cannon in advance. But in Las Vegas, he gave Cannon $1,000 in spending money for wife Trenna and additional $5,000 in cash after Cannon met with the investors, the FBI affidavit says.
Back in Charlotte, Cannon received $10,000 more after one of the “investors” supposedly came through with $25 million for the project Cannon had promised to help, the affidavit says.
In February, Cannon not only took the Fossil suitcase but also pressed for a 1 percent kickback on the planned $125 million project, according to the affidavit. That would have amounted to $1.25 million.
That meeting ended with Cannon and the agent discussing the safest way for Cannon to receive additional payments, the affidavit says. They were to talk again on March 26, the day of Cannon’s arrest.
Even before seizing Cannon’s records, the FBI appears to have begun piecing together a money trail.
Cannon made more than 40 cash deposits totaling almost $41,000 to personal bank accounts from 2007 to 2013, the affidavit says. Almost half were for $500 or more. All were below $10,000. Anything above that figure requires banks to file a currency report.
On July 18, 2013, Cannon deposited $8,800 into one of his accounts – less than a day after the FBI says one of its agents gave the then-mayoral candidate $10,000. Researcher Maria David and Staff Writer Ely Portillo contributed.