Sting raises questions about Charlotte government

The federal government says Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon traded cash and gifts for his influence over city departments and key public individuals, raising questions about the integrity of local government.

In its 42-page affidavit against Cannon, the federal government says Cannon claimed he could influence officials who issued permits for buildings; officials who made zoning and planning decisions; the fire department; liquor license applications handled by the Mecklenburg office of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission; and one member of City Manager Ron Carlee’s executive team.

Cannon, a Democrat, also said he would help ensure the streetcar would be built so he and his business partners could profit from development that the rail line could generate, the affidavit says.

During a news conference Wednesday, Carlee was asked whether he would be conducting his own investigation of city departments and individuals as the federal probe continues.

“Whatever we do internally will be done in collaboration with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI so we don’t impact their investigation,” Carlee said.

In taped conversations with FBI undercover agents, Cannon talked about how his tenure as the longest-serving city elected official could benefit the informants, who posed as business partners.

It’s possible that some of Cannon’s claims were bluster, overstating his ability to influence city and county officials.

But Cannon could conceivably have contacted a staff member and asked that a project be permitted quickly or ask a city staff member to recommend in favor of a development even if it went against city guidelines.

Cannon, who was first elected in 1993, was familiar with how local government worked. Soon after he was elected mayor in November, for instance, Cannon said he wanted to make the city and the county’s permitting process easier for businesses and property owners to navigate.

In the affidavit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Cannon asserted that he used his position as an elected official to intervene in a “major project” to help a “prominent” local businessman. The federal government declined to elaborate, saying it was part of an “ongoing” investigation.

The affidavit said Cannon told agents about “his relationship, and influence over, certain city departments and employees.”

The federal government says Cannon first took a $12,500 bribe in January 2013 to ensure a proposed nightclub could open uptown. The nightclub was fictitious, and part of the FBI’s sting.

“You know, again whatever you can do to get our application moved up towards the top, uh, business license and things like that, that we need,” said an informant, according to the affidavit.

“Yeah, not a problem,” Cannon said, according to the affidavit.

The informant then gave Cannon $12,500 in cash during a meeting at a SouthPark apartment that had been rented for the sting.

Cannon touted his experience leading the City Council’s public safety committee, which has handled high-profile issues such as a new towing ordinance and the permitting of taxicabs.

The committee also handled issues involving the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department. The affidavit said Cannon touted his relationship with the police, whose ABC unit handles liquor license applications and background checks.

Cannon had told the undercover agent that he could help smooth over any issues with a liquor license for the nightclub.

During the news conference Wednesday, Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes, a fellow Democrat, was asked whether the city would scrutinize votes that Cannon took as a council member.

“That will be up to the U.S. attorney,” Barnes said. “We have no control over what they do.”

In 2012, Cannon had voted against a city plan to fund a streetcar extension with property taxes.

But in May 2013, Carlee had created a new plan to use city reserves to fund half of the project, with the other half contingent upon a federal match.

Cannon voted for that plan.

Soon after, Cannon and the first undercover informant met a second informant, who was posing as a developer interested in building mixed-use retail and residential projects along the streetcar line and Lynx Blue Line extension to University City, the affidavit says.

At one point, Cannon promised to keep a purported investor informed of the construction schedule for the streetcar so he could buy real estate along the line.

Cannon told an investor when discussing development opportunities along rail lines: “That’s gonna be, that’s gonna be major. There is money to be made. I can connect you with (prominent Charlotte developer) who owns a lot of the dirt and real estate around that area.”

Later, during a meeting with one of the informants who was posing as a business investor, Cannon said it would be critical to have the support of one member of Carlee’s executive team.

The affidavit doesn’t specify the gender of the city staff member or identify them. The document obscures the gender of the city official.

The affidavit has Cannon stating: “Oh (he/she’s) gonna be good. You’ve gotta have (him/her.) An, uh, I’ll need to, uh, just kind of make sure I’m positioning (him/her) in case you need different things.”

Cannon said, according to the affidavit, the person had just become a member of the manager’s executive team, and that the person could be a manager but “wants to continue to do planning...”

Debra Campbell was promoted to Carlee’s executive team in January and serves as the planning director.

Campbell, who has worked in Charlotte for more than two decades, declined to comment Wednesday, referring questions to Carlee.

Cannon also spoke about how he could influence the planning and zoning process, which can be critical to a development moving forward.

For instance, a project might not be part of what’s known as an “area plan,” a City Council document. But planning officials can sometimes recommend in favor of a project – even if it conflicts with the area plan.

The mayor also makes appointments to the city’s Planning Commission, which makes recommendations to the City Council on rezonings.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer