by Michael Lowrey
Recently wrote a column about the arrest of then Charlotte Mayor Patric Cannon on federal public corruption charges. It will appear in the May print edition of Carolina Journal, but here it is in unedited form a bit early:
North Carolina once had made a name for itself as a clean government state. That reputation has suffered in recent years, with a host of high-profile arrest of public officials on corruption charges. The latest came on March 26, when Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, was arrested for allegedly taking a bribe from a federal agent. Cannon resigned the same day.
There’s a significant difference between this and other recent major public corruption scandals in North Carolina though. Cases like those involving Jim Black and Mike Easley had obvious and well reported jumping off points. That isn’t the case with Cannon’s arrest. No one was expecting Cannon to be arrested on that Wednesday in late March, least of all the then mayor.
At this stage about all we know comes from what’s in the indictment of Cannon:
This investigation was initiated in August 2010 based on a tip and information received from local law enforcement. A local law enforcement officer was working in an undercover capacity on other criminal matters and learned of information that would be helpful to the FBI regarding public corruption. Although the FBI was originally investigating other individuals and other potential criminal activities, the investigators learned that CANNON was potentially involved in illegal activity.
Beginning in 2011, the FBI used undercover agents to target Cannon, who first allegedly accepted a bribe from them in January 2013. He’s alleged to have eventually taken $48,500, plus have the use of a luxury apartment in Charlotte, and taken an all-expense-paid trip to Las Vegas with his wife. The FBI claims that Cannon demanded substantially more, including “a point” — one percent of the value — of a $125 million potential investment along Charlotte’s proposed streetcar line.
The indictment raises a number of rather obvious questions. From what state or local law-enforcement agency was the undercover cop that originally provided the tip to the FBI? And what sort of possible corruption does the tip involve? And what of that related federal investigation into “other individuals and other potential criminal activities” that is apparently ongoing?
Turning to Cannon’s involvement, why specifically did the FBI take the next step and target Cannon? And why did they think he would take a bribe? That’s a particularly important issue because as of now Cannon only faces charges related to the money he allegedly took from the FBI — the agency is currently not alleging that any other action that Cannon took was corrupt.
OK, the seemingly obvious answer — the indictment says as much — is that the FBI heard credible stories that Cannon might be willing to take a bribe. But why isn’t the FBI charging him with taking bribes in other cases? Or is that the next step in the investigation? Or might Cannon cut a deal to testify against others in the relate investigation?
Complicating matters is that Cannon’s service as an elected official was not continuous. Cannon was on city council from 1993 through 2005 and then again from 2009 through 2013, when he was elected mayor. So does Cannon’s apparent willingness to take a bribe extend back to his previous stint on city council or was it a habit he developed only after he returned to the board? Or put another, with the statue of limitation having likely run out on any public corruption-related charges related to Cannon’s previous stint on city council, did anything that happened in those previous 12 years on the board in any way shape the FBI’s investigation? Or did Cannon suddenly just become so very noticeable corrupt that the FBI was on his trail within two years?
And if Cannon was on the take, what other recent Charlotte city actions might have been influenced by money being passed in designer briefcases? And are other Charlotte city or Mecklenburg County officials, be they elected or city or county staff, on the take?
So, yes, there are a lot of unanswered questions at this stage. Hopefully, we’ll soon have answers — because until we know the extent of the ethical rot, the Queen City and by extension the state can’t begin to rebuild its reputation.