Inside the Courts

Supreme Court ruling on corruption unlikely to help Patrick Cannon

Sometimes, a lack of initiative really pays off.

As much as anything, that helps explain why former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon is still in prison while ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is already attempting to revive his political career.

Both took bribes, federal prosecutors say. Both betrayed their constituents and their oaths of office.

However, a recent landmark Supreme Court decision on public corruption parses out a key difference. McDonnell, a Republican, did comparatively little to earn his money. Cannon, on the other hand, was far more industrious.

As he awaits his release from his West Virginia prison camp to a Charlotte halfway house, a point by point comparison of the two cases must still leave Cannon in night sweats.

After all, McDonnell and his family took more than three times as much largesse as Cannon – $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury gifts from a Richmond, Va., businessman seeking a powerful friend.

And unlike Cannon, McDonnell fought his federal accusers in court, a high-risk gamble that often leads to a harsher sentence. Sure enough, after his 2014 conviction the U.S Probation Office recommended McDonnell serve more than 12 years in prison.

Federal courts in that part of Virginia follow those recommendations 70 percent of the time. Except in McDonnell’s case, the judge settled on two years. Now the Supreme Court unanimously has thrown that out.

The justices’ reasoning focuses on the lack of a clear quid pro quo between McDonnell and the businessman, who wanted the governor’s help hawking a nutritional supplement. McDonnell agreed to make some phone calls and host a luncheon at the governor’s mansion where he encouraged researchers to study his benefactor’s product.

Smarmy? Perhaps. But Chief Justice John Roberts says making phone calls and arranging meetings fall under the protected category of constituent services, says Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor and now one of the country’s leading authorities on public corruption – and one of four legal experts the Observer talked to for this story.

All agreed on a central point: Elected officials cross the line of legality when they agree to make or influence an official decision in exchange for something of value.

Which brings us back to Cannon. In return for the $50,000 in bribes he pocketed from undercover FBI agents and strip club owner Slim Baucom in 2013-14, the Democrat promised to help with zoning permits and liquor licenses. He went to a city council member and urged him to intervene in a dispute Baucom was having with the city’s light rail line.

“When you have an issue with your building ... whether they are holding you up, I get that phone call,” Cannon told an FBI agent posing as a real-estate developer, who was already showering Cannon with illegal cash.

Eliason is no fan of the court’s opinion, saying it opens the door on elected officials being money-whipped, as long as there is no trail of official return favors left behind.

“These cases are hard enough to prove because their subtle and they’re done with winks and nods,” he says. “Raising the standard like this makes them all the more difficult to prove.”

Cannon’s case? Not so much. He earned his bribes.

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