A one-sided plea agreement may be Patrick Cannon’s best chance to carve time off his expected prison term.
The four-year investigation into public corruption that led to the March 26 arrest of the former Charlotte mayor remains open, with one major change: The 47-year-old Democrat goes from its main target to a potentially vital informant. Whatever – and whomever – Cannon knows, he must now share with his federal handlers.
“If he jaywalks on the way to a restaurant, he’s going to tell them,” says Richard Myers, a former federal prosecutor and an associate dean of the UNC School of Law. “He has every incentive to get everything illegal he’s ever done, or anything that even looks suspicious, out on the table.”
From now on, should Cannon lie or withhold information or break the law in any way, the government can revoke its agreement. Cannon would be stuck with his guilty plea and the likelihood of a much stiffer sentence. He could also face immediate incarceration.
As part of Cannon’s plea, the office of U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins of Charlotte did not pursue two charges from Cannon’s arrest. It also won’t bring additional charges against Cannon if new evidence against him comes out of the investigation.
In return, Cannon must fully account for all illegal activity in which he took part or knows about. That requirement goes well beyond the five-year window covered in the criminal charge.
Myers and former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers say Cannon probably came clean before the government even offered its deal. Oddly, the dirtier Cannon is, the more valuable he can become.
“You end up with this very interesting situation where the defense attorney is interested in finding out every bad thing his client has ever done,” Myers says. “This is the defendant’s one chance to show, ‘I should get a break. Here’s all the things I know.’ ”
Given that Cannon spent almost 20 years in public office, his testimony could cover years of illegal activity and involve numerous people. Some crimes may be too old to prosecute. Others may not.
“Normally you start at the bottom and work your way up. Here, you’re starting at the mountaintop,” said George Laughrun, a veteran Charlotte criminal defense attorney. “You have the leader of the city. You have to have people under him to get things done. This investigation may be all smoke and mirrors, but it sure doesn’t sound that way.”
Cannon pleaded guilty Tuesday to a public corruption charge that involves his pocketing of more than $50,000 in bribes. Most of the money came from undercover FBI agents posing as out-of-town real estate investors. But documents in the case also say Cannon had been on virtual retainer to a Charlotte businessman, now identified as strip-club magnate David “Slim” Baucom.
Investigators will not say whether they have targeted Baucom, who has not been charged, or anyone else.
“What I can tell you is we will continue to follow all leads, and we will follow those leads wherever they take us,” Tompkins said Tuesday.
According to his plea agreement, Cannon will be counted on to help lead the way.
The quality of the information he shares could improve his prospects when he stands before a judge later this year. With prosecutors offering little more than the hope of a lighter sentence, Cannon agreed to plead guilty Tuesday to a corruption charge that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
For now his sentencing range stands between 63 and 78 months. A recommendation from prosecutors that the judge take into account Cannon’s cooperation could shave off significant time, legal experts say.
“The judge is going to do what the judge is going to do. But most of them take very seriously the factor of cooperation,” says Rodgers, a former assistant U.S. attorney from New York who now heads Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity.
“There can be a serious (sentencing) discount.”
To qualify for any judicial break, Cannon must first meet a detailed list of requirements spelled out in his plea – from testifying when needed, to providing all documents and information required.
The language is specific and onerous. If Cannon becomes a witness in future trials, prosecutors want the terms of his deal and the level of his criminality clear to everyone in the courtroom, Rodgers says.
The repercussions from the Cannon scandal have already surged across the city. When federal documents showed Cannon pressured City Council colleagues and government department heads to help the people who were paying him bribes, council member Michael Barnes and planning director Deborah Campbell felt compelled to issue public statements that they had done nothing wrong.
Much of local government remains under a self-imposed gag order, waiting for events to unfold. Prosecutors, though, expect Cannon to keep talking.
“The people who have ruined his life, who have sunk his boat, have now offered to throw him a life jacket,” Myers said. “There’s nothing to gain from holding anything back. In fact, it carries a significant risk.”