The FBI has refused to release information about a “feminine hygiene product” former Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon claimed to want to develop, and which he used as a pretext to accept a bribe. The agency officially claims release of the documents could interfere with the case, even though the investigation has completed and Cannon is in prison.
In the affidavit supporting the mayor’s arrest, the FBI described Cannon lobbying an undercover agent for a bribe. He asked the agent to invest in a “feminine hygiene product” called HERS. It has no website, patent, or financial record, other than possibly a $1,000 wire transfer, labeled "R&D," from Cannon to a business in Taiwan. Cannon showed the undercover agent a “rudimentary slide show and spreadsheet” for HERS, to attract a $12,500 investment — his first recorded bribe — according to the affidavit.
It’s not clear if Cannon, an entrepreneur who started both parking and lighting businesses, used a fictional product as a pretext for the bribe or if he actually intended to start a business.
After the mayor’s guilty plea and sentencing, WFAE filed a request to obtain the slide show and spread sheet from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI denied it, on the grounds that release “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
“It’s tough to reconcile what we know are the facts of the case and the FBI’s response to the FOIA request,” says Mike Tadych, a Raleigh-based attorney who handles Freedom of Information Act — or FOIA — cases.
Tadych is skeptical of the FBI’s claim, since Cannon is already in prison.
“If there’s no one else involved, it’s difficult to understand how it could interfere with ongoing police proceedings,” says Taydch.
WFAE appealed, and upon further review an FBI lawyer reaffirmed the decision. The records could interfere with an ongoing investigation. Futhermore, the agency will neither confirm nor deny the records even exist, citing another exemption that doing so could reveal “procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecution” — even though the official case relies on it.
The FBI has shown videos at a Citizen’s Academy of Cannon accepting bribes.
Former FBI assistant director Chris Swecker says it’s not really about whether Cannon’s idea for a feminine hygiene product could topple future cases. It’s standard practice.
“If the case is open, if it’s continuing, they’re not going to start letting out information in dribs and drabs until the whole investigation is completed,” says Swecker.
In this instance, though, the FBI admits it has finished its investigation.
“While the investigation that resulted in the arrest, guilty plea, and sentencing of Patrick Cannon has concluded, the case is not yet officially closed,” says Special Agent John Strong, in a statement. “There are a number of administrative processes that much take place to officially close a case including the return of evidence, etc.”
Although agencies can take as long as necessary to compile records, the Freedom of Information Act does not include an exemption for administrative reasons.
"Frankly, I think they err always on the side of caution,” says Swecker. “I think the people who are processing those requests are pretty much operating on a checklist almost until it gets to an appeals stage. It’s really an assembly line type of process.”
WFAE will not sue the FBI to continue to seek the information about HERS.