Disgraced former Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon is expected to return to his hometown Thursday – and an uncertain, new chapter of his life – after serving half of his 44-month prison sentence for corruption.
The 49-year-old Democrat will spend the final four months of his punishment in familiar surroundings – within the walls of the south Charlotte home he shared with his wife and two children before he became the first mayor in the city’s history convicted of public corruption, now banished from the seats of power he held for more than 20 years.
Cannon’s expected release follows almost two years in a West Virginia minimum-security federal prison camp. But he will still not be a free man.
For the next four months, the former mayor likely will wear a monitoring device on his ankle and can leave his house only for work, medical reasons or church. He has to report to his probation officers shortly after his arrival and he and his home are subject to spot checks by authorities.
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He also must find a job and “support his dependents and meet other family responsibilities.” If he violates this or any of the other 25 stipulations attached to his case, Cannon can be taken back into the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for the remainder of his 44-month term.
Cannon will remain a federal inmate until Jan. 25 when he begins two more years of supervised release. His original sentence included a $10,000 fine and some $50,000 in restitution, the latter covering the amount of bribes he took from undercover FBI agents over a 13-month period ending with his March 2014 arrest. Court documents say the restitution was paid in full about a month after Cannon entered prison.
Public records indicate Cannon still owes more than $11,116 to the Internal Revenue Service.
‘A difficult road’
Cannon resigned as mayor hours after his arrest. After pleading guilty three months later, Cannon entered Morgantown Federal Correctional Institution on Nov. 18, 2014. While there, he was treated for a drinking problem he reportedly developed after his arrest. Completion of the program cut a year off his sentence. He also worked a variety of prison jobs.
While federal prisons abolished parole years ago, inmates can qualify for a series of incentives to cut their time.
Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot said he believes in rehabilitation and second chances but says Cannon has brought shame to himself, his family and friends, and his city.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do, but it will be a difficult road,” said Vinroot, who was mayor when Cannon became the youngest man ever elected to the Charlotte City Council. “The real difficulty is confronting friends and confronting society. ... It will be even worse for his family. You walk into a movie theater and people will be whispering. ‘There’s Patrick Cannon. An ex-con.’ ”
The Rev. Ricky Woods, pastor of First Baptist Church-West, one of the city’s most prominent African American congregations, says he hopes Cannon is given the chance by his hometown to make things right.
“From a faith perspective, we believe in redemption, and that’s a wonderful way to approach this story,” Woods said. “First of all, he has paid his debt. That issue has been addressed. And as he returns to his home and the city that he loves, what opportunities will be extended to him? I hope there will be people there to pick him up.”
Cannon, he said, must also own up to his mistakes.
“There’s another part of redemption on how you make it better for the people who were hurt, who were disappointed. What can you do to make things right with them?”
Cannon was the subject of a wide-ranging FBI sting in which undercover agents paid him almost $50,000 in bribes, gave him access to a luxury SouthPark apartment and flew him and his wife to Las Vegas. In return, according to court documents, Cannon agreed to use his influence around City Hall to fast-track planning and permit requirements.
Cannon also was kept on virtual retainer for Charlotte strip club magnate David “Slim” Baucom, who paid Cannon for government favors, documents say. When the city’s light rail extension threatened a Baucom strip club in north Charlotte, Cannon interceded.
Baucom did not reply to an email this week seeking comment.
“Hopefully, you did not destroy Charlotte’s image, but you have seriously tarnished Charlotte’s image,” U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney told Cannon at his sentencing. “You’re a good man, a very good man, but you have made serious mistakes.”
Cannon expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness. “I failed as a father,” he said. “I failed as a husband. I failed as a servant leader. I failed as a citizen.”
His prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, later picked up the thread. “Mr. Cannon,” she said, “betrayed us all.”
Before leaving Charlotte, Cannon cast an illegal vote in the November 2014 elections. He told Whitney that he voted out of habit and without thinking. Whitney put him under house detainment until he reported to prison. He was indicted by a Mecklenburg County grand jury for voter fraud. Under an agreement with local prosecutors, he was sentenced to a day in jail – a token penalty that was woven into his federal prison sentence.
His arrest and sudden fall from power rocked a city that long prided itself as being corruption-free. Earlier this year, the collective shock and revulsion returned when the FBI released surveillance tapes that showed Cannon pocketing thousands in illegal payoffs from undercover agents.
“I felt sick when it happened. I felt sick again when I saw something I have never seen, and never imagined would ever happen in this good city,” Vinroot said at the time.
Cannon will not be able to vote or run for office until January 2019, when his probation ends. Voters will pick a new city council later that year, a coincidence that will fuel conjecture on whether the longtime officeholder will again seek a council seat.
Vinroot says the prospects of the surveillance tapes surfacing during the campaign “would keep him and his family out of any election plans he might have.”
Woods is not so sure.
“(Americans have) a history of persons running for office even after difficult spells,” he said. “I wish him the best, and hope that he can find his path. And that it is a path which leads to even greater success than what he has already had.”
Cannon, who will turn 50 in late November, remains a polarizing figure. His populist, constituent-service driven style earned him four terms on city council. He was elected mayor in November 2013, even as the FBI quietly pressed on with its investigation.
In February that year, he took a briefcase containing $20,000 in bribes during a meeting in the mayor’s office, and solicited a kickback of more than $1 million. Federal prosecutors agreed not to prosecute him for the larger amount in return for his guilty plea.
Former City Manager Ron Carlee, whose administration was rocked by Cannon’s arrest and the FBI probe of further corruption at city hall, now questions if Cannon’s punishment was too harsh.
On his last birthday, 435 people offered good wishes on Cannon’s Facebook page while dozens others posted cards and tidings. In two months, when his birthday rolls around again, Cannon will be wearing an ankle bracelet, but he will be celebrating at home.
A fairy tale
On Sunday, the sermon at St. Matthew Catholic Church focused on the Prodigal Son, Pat Cotham says.
On Wednesday, the Mecklenburg county commissioner says she texted Cannon’s wife, Trenna, and offered her prayers and support.
Cotham, who formerly worked at a Charlotte nonprofit to help released inmates find jobs, also volunteered to meet with Patrick Cannon and his family to plan for the challenges ahead. In particular, Cannon has to find a job. First he must make peace with his family, who she says were forced to endure the scandal and embarrassment that Cannon left behind.
“In prison, your world gets very small,” she says. “You envision what your life and family will be like when you get out. Usually, it’s like a fairy tale. When you get home, reality starts.”
While he has clear advantages over other inmates in that regard, Cannon no longer has a parking company. Given his connections throughout the community, it’s possible Cannon already has something lined up. But Cotham says he has to be ready “come clean” about his actions.
“He has a vested interest to speak candidly about where his head was at the time, why he did what he did, what he has learned since then,” she said.
In the months between Cannon’s arrest and his imprisonment, he and Cotham shared a series of text messages. Cotham says she “treasures” the correspondence, and continues to use a battered cell phone while a new one stays in its box out of fear of losing the texts when she switches models.
In most of them, Cotham counsels him to rely on his faith. Cannon responds in kind, with each message ending with two passages of scripture, John 14:27 and Jeremiah 29:11. The latter verses seem particularly appropriate for a disgraced former public servant.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
On the day he entered prison, Cannon sent Cotham his thanks and blessings. “Signing off the phone now,” he wrote.
“Sign on to God,” Cotham texted back.
“Already have,” Cannon replied.