Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon enters West Virginia prison

Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon traded jeans and a light brown sweater for a khaki green prison uniform – and a once promising political career for a serial number on Tuesday.

At his sentencing last month, his attorneys asked a federal judge to allow the felon to spend his birthday and the coming holidays with his wife and children in Charlotte.

Instead, Cannon kicked off his 44-month sentence just before noon Tuesday.

Cannon entered prison when he stepped out of a black SUV in front of Federal Correctional Institution Morgantown and checked in with the guards. He was taken by truck to a building on the backside of the prison camp.

Once inside, the 47-year-old Democrat exchanged his street clothes for prison garb. According to prison protocol, he was fingerprinted, photographed and handed a copy of the 50-page inmate handbook, which contains the rules, regulations and available programs of his new prison home.

Cannon was arrested in March and accused of accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from FBI agents and a Charlotte strip club owner. He resigned as mayor the same day. In June, he pleaded guilty to a single corruption charge and apologized to the city and his supporters.

Given the programs and good-behavior incentives available to all federal inmates, Cannon could be back at home or in a Charlotte halfway house is less than two years.

On Sunday morning, Cannon posted a new cover photo on his Facebook page: “redemption,” it reads in large letters. He also added a quote from author C.S. Lewis. “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

Despite that theme of a better tomorrow, for the present Cannon’s 20-year political career is no more. His demise came at a time when the profile of Charlotte’s so-called weak ceremonial mayor may have been at its highest.

Of Cannon’s predecessors, one was a longtime member of Congress. Another is the governor. A third is a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet. Cannon becomes the first mayor in Charlotte’s history sent to prison for a crime.

“There is anger in the community, but beyond that there is huge disappointment,” said Ricky Woods, pastor of First Baptist Church - West, one of the city’s most prominent African-American congregations.

Cannon, he said, “had this wonderful, wonderful opportunity that – there is no other way to say it – has been squandered.”

Longtime businessman and civic leader Dennis Rash, as with Woods, said Cannon’s case shows how money can corrupt local government, even though Charlotte’s use of nonpartisan professionals to run the city “tends to take away the temptation.”

“In Patrick’s case, this was not big money,” Rash said, “but it was enough to be influential.”

Cannon’s fall began in 2010, when he became the target of an FBI corruption probe shortly after he rejoined the City Council. Starting in January 2013, undercover agents posing as out-of-town real estate investors paid Cannon five separate bribes to expedite their supposed projects.

Court records also indicate that Charlotte strip club mogul David “Slim” Baucom kept Cannon on virtual retainer, paying him a regular sum that he increased when he needed special favors.

U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins says the original investigation continues, though Cannon remains the only arrest. Over the last eight months, Tompkins’ staffers and the FBI have pored through thousands of pages of documents and are believed to have delved into everything from the city’s taxi contracts at the airport to the path and construction of the new light-rail line to UNC Charlotte.

On Nov. 8, Cannon hosted a party for family and acquaintances that he called a “celebration of friendship.”

His weekend Facebook post looking ahead to a brighter future drew prayers and words of encouragement from friends and supporters.

Yet Rash says Cannon not only damaged his hometown’s reputation, he also left a void in leadership where it is needed most – among the young.

“He had a story that was captivating, where he came from, how he pulled himself up, which is part of the breadth of the tragedy that has taken place,” Rash said.

“But robbing low- and moderate-income students of a visible and successful role model – to me, that’s the highest tragedy.”

Life as an inmate

Cannon’s incarceration will cost taxpayers about $60 a day, just under $20,000 a year, prison officials say.

Over his first two weeks, Cannon will undergo a series of medical and psychological assessments. He has requested enrollment in the prison’s Residential Drug Abuse Program, or RDAP, which covers nine months of treatment and training.

Cannon’s attorneys said in court that Cannon has developed a drinking problem. If he is accepted and completes the program, it could cut a year off his sentence.

Minimum security prisons offer dormitory-style housing. Morgantown, with about 1,200 inmates, has seven residential buildings. Visitors are allowed Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Cannon’s wife and two young children will be a six-hour drive away.

Woods came to Charlotte at the same time Cannon’s political career took flight.

“What I saw about Patrick is that he had an idea of what he wanted to do with his life and how he would get there, and he was unapologetically aggressive about doing that,” Woods said.

“He had an ability to build relationships throughout the community rather than isolate himself in one segment, and he could reach out to other parts of the city that we don’t serve as well as we should.”

Before Cannon returns to Charlotte, whether he re-enters public life or not, Woods says the former mayor must accept responsibility for the damage he has done, particularly to the notion of public service.

“Of it being viable and worthwhile and something to give my time and energy to. Not the fame of the position and not what it can provide me. But what the framers had in mind – to serve my community, to provide some mark with my abilities, then move on.” John Simmons contributed.

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