CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mayor Patrick Cannon was getting ready to close the deal with the big-time developer, but was reluctant to take a briefcase containing $20,000 while sitting in his city office.
“I just got to be conscious about that kind of stuff here, you know,” Cannon told the fictitious developer, who was, in fact, an undercover FBI agent.
Yet when the “developer” left, the briefcase, given to Cannon in exchange for his offer to pull strings with important city officials, stayed behind, according to court documents.
Cannon was arrested Wednesday and accused of accepting more than $48,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen who wanted to do work with North Carolina’s largest city. He resigned Wednesday evening, less than six months after taking office.
It was a stunning fall for the 47-year-old Democrat who had risen from the city’s public housing projects to become a successful businessman and politician.
According to the criminal complaint, Cannon accepted more than $48,000 in cash, airline tickets, a hotel room and the use of a luxury apartment as bribes and solicited more than $1 million more. If convicted on all charges, Cannon faces up to 50 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines.
While working with the undercover agents, Cannon touted his close relationship with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and a trip to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama and other administration officials, the complaint said.
At one point, an undercover agent said to Cannon: “You’re operating at quite a level, Patrick.”
Cannon, a longtime radio show host and the founder of E-Z Parking, a parking management company, was elected mayor in November, replacing Anthony Foxx, who was named Transportation Secretary by Obama.
Cannon had an initial court appearance Wednesday and was released on $25,000 unsecured bond. He did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
FBI agents posing as commercial real estate developers paid Cannon on five separate occasions between January 2013 and February 2014, according to the complaint. The mayor accepted cash in exchange for access to city officials responsible for planning, zoning and permitting, the complaint said.
On the last occasion, a private meeting in the mayor’s office on Feb. 21, the developer handed Cannon a briefcase filled with $20,000 in cash. At first, Cannon was reluctant to take the briefcase in the city office, the complaint said. But ultimately, he kept it.
U.S. attorney’s office spokeswoman Lia Bantavani said the investigation was ongoing. She declined further comment.
The investigation began in August 2010 after a tip from a local undercover officer about public corruption. At the time, Cannon still held an at-large seat on the Charlotte City Council. He was first elected to the council in 1993 at age 26, becoming the youngest council member in the city’s history.
When he was 5, his father was found dead of a gunshot wound outside a vacant school. He was raised by his mother, Carmen, who worked on a truck assembly line. They lived in housing projects.
After graduating from South Mecklenburg High, he earned a degree in communications with a minor in marketing from historically black North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, said he was saddened and angered by the charges. He said he had known Cannon’s family for more than 30 years.
“But more than anything, my heart is broken for the city of Charlotte,” McCrory said. “This is not the city that I know, served and love. This alleged behavior is inexcusable and cannot be tolerated.”
McCrory’s older brother Phil McCrory was a mentor to Cannon in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Their relationship grew into a strong friendship, according to Karen Calder, the group’s chief executive. Cannon was even a groomsman in Phil McCrory’s wedding.
According to the complaint, Cannon also accepted $12,500 from an undercover agent to help him develop a feminine hygiene product called “Hers.” In exchange, Cannon offered to help the agent — posing as a business manager for a venture capital company — get the necessary permits to open a nightclub.
Cannon later had a discussion with the undercover agent, apparently attempting to clarify that the money was strictly seed money for the “Hers” product and not payment for his help in opening the nightclub.
“OK, so I mean, âcause I’m not, I’m not one of those Chicago or Detroit type (of) folk,” Cannon told the agent, apparently referring to high-profile corruption cases in those cities.
Cannon ended the conversation by saying he looked good “in an orange necktie, but not an orange suit,” according to the complaint.
When the agent set up two later meetings to discuss the money and give Cannon an opportunity to return it, Cannon did not to show up, the complaint said.
During his campaign, Cannon promoted plans to create jobs in a city of 760,000 people that has become one of the nation’s leading banking and energy centers.
In May, two days after Cannon announced he was running for mayor, the first undercover agent introduced him to a second undercover agent posing as a developer from Las Vegas. The second agent told Cannon he was interested in developments along a streetcar and light rail line being built in Charlotte. Cannon provided the proposed routes and stops, according to the complaint.
Cannon agreed to fly to Las Vegas to persuade a group of potential foreign investors to invest in the company purportedly owned by the second agent. Even though the two had known each other only about a month, Cannon agreed to tell the investors he had known the agent for years. The complaint said Cannon acknowledged the story he would tell investors was false, saying, “Well, if it’s made up, it really doesn’t matter.”
Cannon and the second agent also discussed compensating Cannon for his part in the scheme, and Cannon suggested that he receive a campaign donation before he made the trip to Las Vegas.
Instead, the agent agreed to pay for Cannon’s trip to Las Vegas, plus $6,000 cash for spending money for his wife. The Cannons received the first $1,000 when they arrived in Las Vegas; they received the other $5,000 after Cannon gave his presentation to the purported investors.
Thomas Mills, a longtime Democratic consultant in North Carolina, said he doesn’t believe Cannon’s arrest will damage North Carolina Democrats in general, who have suffered heavily from electoral losses in 2010 and 2012.
“Charlotte has always been a bit of its own entity. It would be more of a problem if it were coming out of the General Assembly or out of Raleigh,” Mills said.
But Michael Barnes, mayor pro tem, said he was worried about the fallout.
“Our history has been to run a clean government, and my expectation and the expectations of my colleagues is that we would continue to run a clean government in Charlotte,” he said.
For City Councilwoman Claire Fallon, the arrest was heartbreaking.
“I found out about what was going on and I was devastated for Charlotte. I ache for my city,” she said.