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FBI says Cannon took bribes in mayor’s office

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested Wednesday on federal public corruption charges after a four-year investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte announced.

Cannon was charged with theft and bribery after an FBI sting operation, said Anne Tompkins, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. He was released on an undisclosed bond, pending indictment.

Authorities said Cannon took bribes from undercover FBI agents five times – the most recent on Feb. 21 when he took $20,000 in cash in the mayor’s office – and a trip to Las Vegas.

Tompkins said Cannon also accepted from the undercover agents more than $48,000 in cash, airline tickets, a hotel room and use of a luxury apartment in exchange for “the use of his official position,” Tompkins said.

Cannon is the longest-serving elected official in Charlotte, having joined the Charlotte City Council in 1993. He is the region's highest-ranking official to be charged in a corruption case since former N.C. House speaker Jim Black of Matthews was charged. Both are Democrats.

Payoff in front of window

At a Jan. 17, 2013 meeting, one FBI agent gave Cannon $12,500 in cash by putting it on a coffee table in front of him. Cannon, according to the affidavit, looked nervously toward a window and covered the money with a folder.

After the agent closed the blinds, Cannon put the money to his ear and fanned the bills.

FBI agents, working on a tip that Cannon, 47, was potentially involved in illegal activities, started an investigation in August 2010, Tompkins said in a statement.

Cannon – elected mayor five months ago after a long political career in Charlotte – solicited and accepted cash bribes and other items of value from undercover FBI agents, posing as commercial real estate developers and investors who wanted to do business in Charlotte, Tompkins said.

“On five separate occasions between Jan. 17, 2013 and Feb. 21, 2014, Cannon accepted cash payments from undercover FBI agents in exchange for access to city officials with responsibility for planning, zoning and permitting,” according to an affidavit filed in the case.

Mayor for five months

FBI agents searched the mayor's office at the City-County government center, his home at Cumnor Lane and his offices at E-Z Parking Inc. at 312 West Trade St.

If found guilty on all charges, Cannon faces up to 50 years in prison and fines of $1.5 million.

Based on a tip from a local law enforcement officer on potential public corruption, the FBI launched its investigation and zeroed in on Cannon in 2011, according to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Eric Davis.

At the time the probe began, Cannon was a City Council member and mayor pro tem.

No comment at courthouse

Cannon made a brief court appearance Wednesday at the federal courthouse in uptown where he was told, among other things,

that he could not be in possession of firearms, according to WCNC-TV. Cannon declined comment when approached by a WCNC-TV reporter as he left the courthouse, but indicated he might talk later. “At this point, there’s nothing to respond to,” Cannon said.

One undercover agent passed himself off as a business manager for a venture capital company based in Chicago. According to the affidavit, he met Cannon in Jan. 2010, telling the mayor he and his investors were interested in opening a nightclub and bar in Charlotte. Ultimately, the agent chose a property in uptown that had parking problems and required zoning changes. In subsequent meetings, Cannon described his relationship and influence over certain city departments and employees, including the zoning board.

On a Dec. 12, 2012 dinner, Cannon asked the undercover agent if he’d be interested in investing in a business Cannon planned to start called HERS, a feminine hygiene produced to be sold nationally. He agreed to give to give Cannon a $12,500 zero-percent return on investment loan, in return for his assistance in getting approval for the zoning needed for the nightclub.

But Cannon said he needed $40,000. “I can do something for around $12,500. Any ideas how I can close the gap and get me some of that capital to get me started to pull this thing in?”

In exchange for the money, the agent asked Cannon “make sure I don’t run into any problems,” the affidavit said. Cannon replied: “I will definitely help you out. So you just want me to help you out on that front?”

‘That’s not how I flow’

According to the government’s account:

After getting a $12,500 payoff from an agent, Cannon said he was the right man to make sure the nightclub had no problems with the city.

In a conversation with the undercover agent, Cannon later tried characterized his acceptance of the money as a business investment unrelated to his public office, the affidavit says.

In laying out his philosophy of helping, Cannon told the agent that he would have helped him even without the $12,500. “I’m not one of those Chicago- or Detroit-type folk. That’s not how I flow.”

In an ironic aside during that same meeting, Cannon said that he looked good “in an orange necktie, but not in an orange suit.”

Agents said they gave Cannon ample opportunity to return the money, but he never did.

When Cannon announced his candidacy for mayor on May 21, 2013, he invited the undercover agent to attend, the affidavit says.

A month after a streetcar line was approved by the city – a project championed by Cannon – a second undercover agent said his company was interested in investing along its path.

Trip to Las Vegas

A second undercover agent asked Cannon to help persuade foreign investors to invest in the agent’s company. Cannon and the agent flew to Las Vegas “for the purpose of creating the false impression with the investors that Cannon had had a long relationship with the undercover agents,” the affidavit says.

In June, during discussions before the trip, Cannon agreed to lie to the investors and raised the question of how he would compensated for his role. When the agent replied, “I want to take care of you on this,” Cannon immediately suggested a campaign contribution. But the agent refused to pay Cannon before they took the trip.

In the end, the agent flew Cannon and his wife to Las Vegas and paid for hotel rooms and gave Cannon $1,000 in cash when he arrived at the hotel.

April Bethea contributed to this report.