As the corruption investigation of former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon went back underground Thursday, a nagging question hung over his embarrassed city:
Couldn’t this have been known before he was elected mayor in November?
According to an affidavit released this week, the FBI became aware of possible illegal activity of then-City Council member Cannon as early as August 2010.
By the time Cannon was sworn in as the city’s top elected leader, undercover agents posing as real estate developers had flown him and his wife to Las Vegas and paid him almost $30,000 in bribes, prosecutors say.
During a February meeting in the mayor’s office, the FBI claims Cannon pocketed an additional $20,000 and solicited $1.25 million more.
The 47-year-old Democrat was arrested Wednesday, allegedly as he met with agents to collect another payoff. He resigned later that day. If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 50 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.
The parallel timelines of the investigation and Cannon’s rise to mayor have led some of his former constituents to wonder why the FBI didn’t act before Cannon was sworn in.
Federal prosecutors were not offering answers of any kind Thursday. But legal experts familiar with public corruption cases say such probes typically run long. In Cannon’s case, the allegations against him clearly grew over time, based on the affidavit.
According to the FBI, Cannon took his first of five payoffs in January 2013. The last came on Feb. 21 at the mayor’s office.
When asked what investigators gained by waiting that long to make an arrest, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, whose office will prosecute the case, declined to comment.
David Rudolf, one of North Carolina’s best-known defense attorneys, says he suspects Cannon’s investigators were taking time to build the strongest case possible, not a bigger headline. Maybe agents delayed the arrest until after the election, he says, to avoid the appearance that they were meddling in local politics.
“When you have a public-corruption case, you want to make it as tight as it possibly can be,” Rudolf says. “... I hate to think they kept it going in hopes of (Cannon) becoming mayor so it would become a bigger case.”
Richard Myers, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at UNC School of Law, says corruption probes often involve conflicting motives: Do we have what we need for a conviction? Or should we shut it down and make an arrest to keep a potentially tainted public figure from doing more damage?
In other words, “I need to stop it as soon as possible. And I need to let it run as long as necessary,” Myers says.
Cannon’s attorney, James Ferguson of Charlotte, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Earlier in the day, he filed a motion to waive his client’s preliminary hearing in federal court. Cannon is expected to be indicted as early as Tuesday.
Crossing the threshold
Over a two-decade period ending in 2012, the Justice Department has prosecuted almost 23,000 corruption cases against elected officials. About a fourth involved city or county government.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, which Tompkins took over four years ago, has convicted 43 officials of federal corruption charges since 2003.
In cases resulting from undercover sting operations such as the one used against Cannon, opinions of the methods can be key.
“It all comes down to how the jury feels about what the government has done,” says Jim Cooney of Charlotte, a prominent North Carolina defense attorney. Did investigators stop a corrupt official or “convince an otherwise law-abiding person to commit a crime?”
To offset any claims of entrapment, prosecutors try to show a pattern of behavior instead of relying on an isolated incident.
According to the FBI, Cannon took his first payoff in January 2013. Before he did, Cannon told the undercover agent that he considered the money a business investment, not a bribe. Afterward, he told the agent he wanted to give the $12,500 back, but never did, the affidavit says.
On its own, the transaction might appear ambiguous to a jury, Myers says. But according to investigators, Cannon’s willingness to accept illegal money didn’t stop there. Over the next year, he took four more payoffs, the FBI says.
If true, that frequency will make it difficult for Cannon to argue entrapment, Myers and Cooney say. Ironically, smaller payments actually help the government’s case because it shows a suspect’s willingness to accept a bribe, Myers says.
“What always strikes me in these cases is how small the numbers are. You slip over the line when it doesn’t feel that much like you’re taking a bribe, and then it increases from there,” Myers says. “Once you cross that psychological threshold, it’s no longer a question of whether I’m going to do this, it’s how much am I worth?”
If Cannon is indicted, Cooney says he expects the case to go to trial.
“If he takes a felony or pleads guilty, it’s over for him. Everything he has always worked for is lost,” Cooney says.
If Cannon is convicted, Cooney and other Charlotte attorneys expect the former mayor, even with his relatively clean criminal record, to spend a significant amount of time in prison.
Says Cooney: “I know very few judges who consider a conviction like this anything else than a very, very serious matter.” Washington correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed.