For his sentencing next week on corruption charges, former Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon has drawn a tough judge.
As a U.S. attorney a decade ago, Frank Whitney made his name prosecuting corrupt public officials – from state Agriculture Secretary Meg Scott Phipps to former state House Speaker Jim Black.
As a federal judge in the Western District of North Carolina since 2006, Whitney has heard a series of high-profile trials involving public exploitation – from preachers and bankers to real estate agents and car dealers. In 2011, Whitney became the first federal jurist to become a military judge and handle the courts-martial of U.S. soldiers in the battle zones of Iraq.
Yet none of those defendants carried as much local significance as Cannon, who this month will likely become the first Charlotte mayor to be sent to prison.
On Oct. 14, Whitney and Cannon, two sons of the city, will face each other in Whitney’s courtroom. Cannon, a 47-year-old Democrat, pleaded guilty in June to accepting bribes from undercover FBI agents and a Charlotte strip-club owner.
The maximum penalty for Cannon’s crime is 20 years. Federal guidelines now put his sentence at four to five years, and in their plea agreement with the defendant, prosecutors promised not to ask for more.
But Whitney, 54, is not bound by that agreement. Federal judges have broad authority in deciding punishment.
Whitney, though, “works hard to get to what he believes to be an appropriate but just sentence,” veteran Charlotte defense attorney Claire Rauscher says.
She adds this: “No one would call him lenient.”
In private, some attorneys say Whitney’s sentences can be harsh.
Over the years, the federal courthouse in Charlotte has given rise to nicknames for some of its stricter judges. The late Robert Potter was known as “Maximum Bob.” Today, some lawyers describe Whitney’s colleague, U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad, as “Maximum Bob Jr.”
Whitney, for now, remains without one. Friends, associates and lawyers who have worked in his courtroom describe him as driven, prepared, meticulous and endlessly polite. Some of his oldest colleagues use terms like “Boy Scout” and “patriot.”
Born in Charlotte, he grew up in a prominent family that believed public service was a duty. Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor who was Whitney’s boyhood Sunday School teacher at Myers Park Presbyterian, says Whitney was among several generations that “thought our politics were pristine.”
Cannon changed that. At least one close associate of Whitney says the judge will want to know why.
Bobby Higdon, a special federal prosecutor in public-corruption cases, says Cannon benefits in one key way from having Whitney as his judge. Whitney believes there is good in everyone, Higdon says, “and he searches to find it.”
Neither politics nor community outrage will play a role in Cannon’s punishment, Higdon predicts.
“I don’t think Frank is the kind of judge who has an ax to grind. He will not forget that this man is a human being, and he will want to understand why he did the things he did,” says Higdon, who was Whitney’s boss when the two were assistant U.S. attorneys in Charlotte. He later headed the criminal division in Raleigh when Whitney became the top federal prosecutor there in 2002.
“No one wants to be sentenced, and Frank is a tough judge. If I was a defendant I would take some comfort that I will be heard. But if I’m the prosecutor … I know I will be heard, too.”
Yet Rauscher, the longtime head of the federal public defenders’ office in Charlotte and now a corporate attorney, says the nature of Cannon’s crimes and the background of his judge could make the hearing more difficult.
“I don’t think Judge Whitney will be happy with him at all,” she says.
‘Honor your position’
In June, Cannon pleaded guilty to a single count of public corruption. An FBI affidavit released at the time of his March arrest, however, detailed months of criminal activity – from pocketing more than $50,000 in undercover bribes to accepting a free trip to Las Vegas for him and his wife where he lied to a group of would-be investors.
In February, Cannon solicited a $1.2 million kickback during a meeting in the mayor’s office, and sources say he was arrested when he attempted to collect another bribe. Prosecutors also said strip-club mogul David “Slim” Baucom kept the mayor on virtual retainer, paying him for favors or things he needed done at City Hall.
Next week, Cannon will appear in Courtroom 1 – Whitney’s courtroom – a small space with a dropped ceiling and little architectural pageantry. Normally, judges hold sentencing hearings in bulk. Cannon’s, however, is the only one on Whitney’s calendar that day.
Citing professional ethics and judicial rules, the judge declined to comment for this story. Several attorneys who appear before Whitney did likewise, though a few spoke on the condition they not be named.
Whitney, a Wake Forest University and UNC law school grad, served 11 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Charlotte before President George W. Bush nominated him to become head prosecutor for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 2002.
From his post in Raleigh, Whitney quickly made public corruption a top priority. Associates say his oversized work ethic swept others in his staff along or out.
“There had been the growing belief that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh was not as productive as it could be. Frank changed that,” Higdon says. “A lot of people would come in and turn over tables and punish people, but that’s not Frank’s way.”
Soon, the office began prosecuting more cases. Early on, Whitney helped send former N.C. Secretary of Transportation Garland Garrett Jr. to prison for operating an illegal video poker operation. In 2002, his investigation of illegal campaign finances by Agriculture Secretary Phipps, the daughter and grand-daughter of governors, led to her resignation and eventual imprisonment. Another investigation led to the jailing of former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance and his son, a sitting judge.
“Honor your position,” Whitney said during a 2003 press conference focused on the crackdown on public corruption.
Whitney’s office later began the investigation of N.C. House Speaker Black on campaign finance irregularities and taking bribes. His demise played a major role in accelerating the Republican takeover of state government.
At the time, Whitney, a former Mecklenburg GOP chairman, said partisan politics had no role in his prosecutions, and that complaints by the Democratic-controlled state Board of Elections or media reports had prompted many of the investigations.
Longtime clean-government advocate Bob Hall recalls sitting down with the U.S. attorney’s staff not long after Whitney took office and being happily surprised to find that corruption cases were being pushed to the front.
“The public is very cynical about politicians, thinking they have all these special privileges,” says Hall, executive director of the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina. “It’s important that a judicial system gets across the message that no one is above the law.
“… Rather than the public getting more cynical, they should actually credit the public servants who are willing to discipline their own.”
‘Oh no, your honor’
Six years ago, Whitney sentenced Sallie Saxon to two years in prison and ordered her immediately taken into custody.
“Oh no, your honor,” Saxon cried out before being led away.
Saxon was convicted of running one of the most sophisticated online prostitution rings in the country out of her Charlotte home.
“Prostitution turns sex into a grotesque tool for profit,” Whitney told her at the time. “It impedes the creation of families. And it causes the collapse of families.”
Today, Saxon says the judge’s words and punishment were fair.
“I got exactly what I deserved,” she says. “He took into account the importance of not letting society think that (my) crime would go unpunished. He also took into account that I had taken responsibility, that I had proclaimed that I was guilty, and that basically, I was at the mercy of the court.”
In 2010, after a tax-evasion trial that involved 70 witnesses and 90,000 pages of documents followed by a sentencing hearing that dragged on for two days, Whitney sentenced the husband-and-wife ministerial team of Anthony and Harriet Jinwright to eight and six years, respectively.
The punishment for the couple included time for abusing positions of trust. Cannon might take note.
A longtime Army reservist, Whitney runs his sentencing hearings with meticulous, almost military, detail – right down to the number of character witnesses he allows the defense to call – three.
Next week, before he gets to court, the judge will have read Cannon’s sentencing recommendation from the U.S. Probation Office. He will take notes during the testimony of expert witnesses and those called to attest to Cannon’s character and previous good works. He will also listen to any final arguments the defense and prosecution want to make.
Eventually, Whitney will ask Cannon to stand. Saxon has stood there before.
“When anyone is standing before a judge, that time while they are deciding your punishment is very difficult,” she says.
Neither Cannon nor his attorneys have commented on what lies ahead.
Asked if she has any advice for the former mayor, Saxon quickly replies, “Take accountability.” But then she reconsiders, fearing that she sounds judgmental.
“Just say this: Be honest and move on.”
She adds one final thought: “There is life after prison.”
Researcher Maria David contributed