Charlotte endured scenes Tuesday that every city hopes forever to avoid: Its former mayor standing in a dark suit in a federal courtroom, bracing for his sentence on corruption charges; family members and friends crying and supporting each other; dozens of TV cameras and microphones bobbing up and down in a giant cluster, following the defendant down the courthouse sidewalk hoping for a comment.
These episodes have played out repeatedly in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and other cities. Tuesday, it was Charlotte’s turn, and we were all forced to ruminate again about the fundamental breach of public trust that Patrick D. Cannon inflicted on the city that gave him so much.
U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney sentenced Cannon to 44 months in prison after the then-mayor pleaded guilty to accepting more than $50,000 in bribes. While there was a sense it could have been worse for Cannon, the sentence was seven months longer than federal prosecutors recommended and within the range of federal guidelines.
It should be long enough for Cannon to ponder why he let “raw greed,” as Whitney put it, destroy his promising career. We hope it’s long enough to deter others from doing the same.
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Whitney had to balance conflicting considerations. On the one hand, Cannon was a first-time offender who, once caught, resigned immediately and cooperated with investigators. On the other, Cannon’s crimes undercut the very heart of democracy. They reflected not a moment’s bad judgment but a pattern that went on for more than a year. The judge needed to hand down a strong deterrent to any public official who might be tempted to put his own enrichment before the public interest.
Cannon was contrite, and his attorney, James Ferguson, emphasized that he stepped down immediately upon his arrest. Whitney countered: “He was caught red-handed. He didn’t have much of a case.”
What we hope Cannon, other public officials and voters take from this demoralizing chapter in Charlotte history is the gravity of the crime. It goes beyond the $50,000 in bribes, beyond the taxpayers and honest businesses that were defrauded. It goes to the very fabric of our political system. Voters are cynical enough already. Cannon’s actions only validate and deepen that cynicism.
This case goes on. U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said the investigation continues, so additional arrests are possible. Public officials, staffers and citizens need to be vigilant about corruption going forward.
“This is a harm that will take a long time to heal,” Tompkins said, and she’s right.
And yet, as Cannon was whisked away, the reminders of Charlotte’s strength surrounded him. On the blocks near the courthouse were Romare Bearden Park, and BB&T Ballpark and gleaming office towers where commerce is on the upswing. This city, it is clear, is much bigger than any one individual, no matter his title.