In an uncharacteristic move Wednesday, the FBI released footage from its two-year investigation of former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, exposing the Democrat’s role in the city’s worst-ever case of public corruption.
The videos, which show Cannon soliciting and accepting bribes from FBI agents acting as real estate developers, were key to his arrest and 44-month prison sentence. Cannon, who pleaded guilty to accepting more than $50,000 from the undercover agents and a Charlotte businessman, became the city’s first chief executive to be convicted and imprisoned for a crime.
His public humiliation became his city’s, too. Now, Charlotte is reliving the blow to its image of good government, one disturbing video clip after another.
“I can’t put my reaction in proper words,” said former Mayor Richard Vinroot, who like thousands of other Charlotteans watched the episodes of Cannon’s criminal activity for the first time on Wednesday.
“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,” he said. “It’s funny, you read about it – and the documents read so graphically. But now you see it, and it’s almost like a movie – somebody you know, doing something so terrible, so despicable while holding the highest office in the city.”
Cannon, now inmate 29396-058 in a minimum security West Virginia prison, is scheduled for release in January but could be in a Charlotte halfway house or under home detention as early as this summer.
The Observer and other media groups filed formal Freedom of Information Act requests for the videos after the FBI showed them to members of its Citizens Academy a year ago. Two reporters participating in the academy were on hand for the screening.
Eight videotapes and three audio recordings were made public. Asked to explain the FBI’s decision, an agency spokeswoman in Charlotte said the FBI was following proper procedures in complying with the media’s FOIA requests.
Charlotte defense attorney Claire Rauscher said Wednesday that the FBI’s release of the tapes is highly unusual.
“The feds don’t release evidence,” said Rauscher, former head of the federal public defender’s office. “Once it was out in the public domain, I don’t think they had much of a choice.”
The videos track key portions of an FBI affidavit released the day of Cannon’s arrest. The footage shows Cannon taking money and, at times, urging undercover FBI agents to pay him more. They were shot at the SouthPark apartment where the FBI says Cannon took his first bribe in January 2013; in Las Vegas that July; and, in February 2014, at the mayor’s office – a month before his arrest and resignation from office.
Cannon’s attorneys, James Ferguson and Jake Sussman, said last year that they were shocked the FBI showed the footage to the Citizens Academy – calling it a a “significant breach of protocol.”
After the videos were released Wednesday to the public at large, Ferguson said he had no comment. Neither did the U.S. attorney’s office, which prosecuted the former mayor, nor former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, now in private practice in Charlotte.
Two of the videos cover the first and last illicit payments.
▪ In footage shot in January 2013 at a SouthPark apartment, an FBI agent can be seen placing two piles of cash – $12,500, according to the FBI affidavit – on a sofa table in front of Cannon. He stares at the money momentarily then slides it into a folder. After the agent pulls down the blinds on a nearby window at Cannon’s request, the city councilman picks up one wad of bills and fans it next to his right ear.
▪ In a February 2014 clip, Cannon sits on a sofa in the mayor’s office and strategizes with an agent about how to get a briefcase carrying $20,000 in cash out of the Government Center. “I just got to be conscious about that kind of stuff here,” Cannon said.
During the same meeting, according to documents, Cannon pressed for more money. “I told (wife) Trenna she has a point,” he says to the agent, meaning a 1 percent kickback on the $125 million project the undercover agents supposedly wanted to build. That amounts to $1.25 million.
Cannon’s acceptance of the bribe at the Government Center is considered by some legal experts as a turning point in the case – in that federal prosecutors believed that a conviction was all but guaranteed.
Rauscher said video of the final payoff is “obviously great direct proof of a bribe. But second of all, that’s taxpayer dollars that just went out the door. That’s a huge risk, and what more do they need?”
The FBI also videotaped Cannon in Las Vegas, where Cannon accepted a free trip for him and his wife in July 2013. The FBI says Cannon pocketed $6,000 in bribes while in Las Vegas pitching Charlotte to erstwhile international investors, and an additional $10,000 once he got back to Charlotte.
The release of the videos showing prolonged criminal activity by the mayor of a major New South city drew varied reactions from Cannon’s hometown.
Edwin Peacock, who lost the mayor’s race to Cannon in 2013, called them “an unfortunate reminder of our broken and fallen nature.”
Charlotte historian Jack Claiborne questioned their importance. “It’s all over,” he said. “We know he’s guilty. I don’t think there’s much to be gained by playing the videos now.”
But Charlotte School of Law professor Victoria Liccione saw significance in the FBI’s decision to release the videos “at a time when we are all so polarized.”
“Many of the tapes that have been released have shown brutal police behavior. But where are the videos that show law enforcement doing the right thing?” said Liccione, a former federal prosecutor.
“Releasing the tapes is so out of character for the FBI. They get no currency from it other than perhaps restoring public confidence, and to show law enforcement doing its job.”