FBI officials in Charlotte this week showed confidential surveillance videos from their investigation of former Mayor Patrick Cannon to the participants of an agency-run community workshop.
Months after Cannon’s imprisonment on a corruption charge, federal authorities remain tight-lipped about the inquiry. But during a weekly installment of their annual “citizens academy,” FBI officials in Charlotte showed four pieces of undercover Cannon surveillance video to more than 20 program participants, including at least two reporters.
Sarah-Blake Morgan, a WBTV reporter enrolled in the workshop, says the viewings were part of a segment on “public corruption” taught by two agents. John Strong, head of the FBI’s operations in North Carolina, was also on hand, she said.
The videos appear to track key portions of an FBI affidavit released the day of Cannon’s arrest but provided more visual drama. Morgan said the footage showed Cannon taking money and, at times, urging undercover FBI agents to pay him more. The videos were shot at the SouthPark apartment where the FBI says Cannon took his first bribe in January 2013; in Las Vegas; and at the mayor’s office in the Government Center.
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Morgan and Time Warner Cable reporter Caroline Vandergriff said the FBI knew that media representatives were enrolled in the eight-week class.
“I was surprised, very surprised that they showed this, more excited really,” Morgan said Friday. “This was like the (Cannon) affidavit that we read over and over, coming to life.”
Likewise, Vandergriff said the videos left her “in disbelief.”
“I couldn’t believe what we were watching. My jaw dropped. It was absolutely fascinating,” she said.
Both journalists said the FBI did not insist on confidentiality or other restraints – besides asking them to use their discretion.
“We were reminded that these agents were going to be way more candid than they would ever be if they were sitting with us as reporters,” said Vandergriff, who did not publish a story on the videos. Morgan’s story appeared Thursday afternoon.
Cannon’s attorneys want answers
Cannon’s attorneys, James Ferguson and Jake Sussman, said Friday that they were shocked that the FBI showed the footage, which they said appeared to be a “significant breach of protocol.”
“The government often places extraordinary limitations on how defense attorneys are permitted to handle sensitive material, like the videos in question. How and why the FBI shared these videos with the public, including a reporter, are questions that need answers,” the Charlotte lawyers said in a statement.
Friday, the FBI declined an Observer request to release the footage or answer questions about why it was shown. The agency said wider public viewings of the videos would jeopardize future FBI undercover operations as well as the identities of the agents who took part.
“Our position with releasing this material has not changed. The Cannon investigation video will not be made available for viewing and will not be released,” said agency spokeswoman Julia Hanish. “The FBI’s Citizens Academy Program may include, at times, information that may not be made available for release to the general public.”
John Strong of Charlotte, head of the agency’s North Carolina operations, did not return an Observer phone call to his office.
The Observer also submitted a list of questions to the agency, including who made the decision to show the videos, whether agency leaders had discussed the viewings internally ahead of time, and whether the footage has been shown to other public groups before.
Again, Hanish said the agency would not comment.
Federal public records law exempts “information compiled for law enforcement purposes” that “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, says the FBI maintains broad legal discretion “on what they want to disclose.”
Last summer, Cannon pleaded guilty to accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as real estate developers and is now serving a 44-month sentence.
The investigation was overseen by the U.S. attorney’s office in Charlotte. A spokeswoman said Friday that prosecutors had no comment about the showing of the videos.
Two clips were taped when Cannon and his wife traveled to Las Vegas at FBI expense to pitch a group of international investors. There, Cannon received a cash bribe and $1,000 in spending money for his wife, according to federal documents tied to the case. Another piece of footage captured Cannon in the mayor’s office taking a briefcase carrying $20,000 from an agent.
In some of the clips, Cannon appears nervous when the money changes hands, Morgan said, while the Las Vegas footage features him repeatedly urging agents to funnel him more money.
Morgan said each piece of footage ran about three to four minutes. She said FBI agents appeared on camera rarely and for brief periods. Workshop participants also heard three taped phone conversations between Cannon and the agents.
Both Morgan and Vandergriff said the class was highly interactive, with the agent instructors stopping the videos to make points or answer questions.
During one exchange Wednesday night, Strong was asked why the Cannon videos had not been made public. Vandergriff said that Strong, special agent in charge for North Carolina, responded that academy members had been vetted, were trusted and would see the videos only once.
If the footage was more widely circulated, Strong said it could be watched repeatedly, posing a greater threat to surveillance techniques and the identities of undercover agents, Vandergriff said.
Morgan said the FBI knew she planned to report on the videos and did not try to stop her. Researcher Maria David contributed.
The citizens academy
According to the FBI’s website, its citizens academy “is a stimulating eight-week program that gives business, religious, civic, and community leaders an inside look at the FBI. It fosters a relationship and understanding between the FBI and its community.”
FBI leaders and agents teach the classes. Participants must be at least 21, have no prior felony convictions, live within the FBI’s local jurisdiction, and undergo a six-week background check.