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Patrick Cannon: From 'First Citizen' To Felon

Patrick Cannon and his family have been told to wait for a letter. It will come from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and tell the former mayor where and when his prison time will be served.

Cannon was sentenced to 44 months in prison Tuesday for accepting more than $50,000 in bribes and gifts from undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen. 

Credit Tasnim Shamma / WFAE
Patrick Cannon while still serving as mayor

Patrick Cannon walked into the federal courtroom wearing a dark suit, blue shirt and blue and gray-striped tie.

Gone was the bravado of a man who knew his political star was on the rise. Gone were the quick smiles, confidence and energetic handshakes. They were replaced by a somber look with eyes straight ahead as he walked down the court’s center isle. Cannon was clearly nervous.

He and his legal team were also 15 minutes late. Attorney James Ferguson blamed the delay on confusion over when the proceedings were scheduled to begin.

U.S. District Court Judge Frank Whitney was not amused. But he decided not to fine the defense for delaying court.

It was one of the few moments of leniency they would see.

The cascade of events that lead Patrick Cannon to this day began in the summer of 2010. An FBI agent posing as a businessman first met then-city councilmember Cannon while investigating another public corruption case.

Over the next few years the undercover agent and Cannon became friends. Cannon portrayed himself as a man who could get things done and cut through red tape. Eventually, Cannon’s influence came with a price: $12,500 for Cannon to push through zoning changes in January of 2013. That bribe paid at an upscale apartment rented by the FBI and outfitted with microphones and cameras.

More bribes followed and Cannon became more brazen - eventually accepting a leather briefcase stuffed with $20,000 in cash. A bribe handed to Cannon in the mayor’s office.

Credit Tasnim Shamma / WFAE
Patrick Cannon after pleading guilty to corruption charges in June.

On March 26, FBI agents raided that office, and Cannon’s house. The mayor was arrested. That night he resigned.

On June 3, Cannon pleaded guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud – a legal term for corruption.

"Today, I have admitted to accepting moneys for constituent services," said Cannon, "Something that never should have been done while serving in elected office."

So yesterday Cannon’s guilt was never in question. How long he would serve in prison was. His legal team was trying to keep that to a minimum. They asked for probation or, if Judge Whitney felt jail time was necessary, a sentence of just 18 months.

And they based their argument on a number of points: Patrick Cannon was a good man who had done wrong. He was a devoted Christian, a dedicated public servant who would drop everything to help someone in need. The bribes, they argued, were an aberration and not a pattern.

Henderson Hill, one of Cannon’s attorneys, asked the judge to look at the totality of the man and not just the events that led to Cannon’s guilty plea.

The defense focused on the structure of Charlotte’s government. The city manager and city council hold the real power. The mayor, they argued, held relatively little. And they asked Judge Whitney to consider this when deciding Cannon’s sentence.

Credit Ben Bradford / WFAE
Patrick Cannon campaigning for Charlotte mayor. Just 114 days after being sworn in he was arrested and charged with corruption.

They also brought up how contrite and remorseful Cannon is. They called Mildred Smith Campbell to the stand. She is a longtime Cannon family friend who said she knew Patrick “even before he was born.” Campbell, Cannon’s former Sunday School teacher, testified she had seen Cannon only once since his arrest. She said the two hugged, he put his head on her shoulder, cried and said “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Patrick Cannon himself told the court that he now knows nothing but shame because of his actions. He apologized for his crime, adding that he had "failed as a father, husband, civic leader and as a citizen.”

The defense also brought up Patrick Cannon’s two children, ages 13 and 16, and told the judge a long jail term for their father would unfairly punish the teenagers who need their father more now than ever.

Prosecution's Response

The U.S. attorneys began their remarks by saying any harm done to the Cannon children is due to the actions of their father and not the decision of the court.

Then they methodically countered each of the defense team’s arguments.

They said even if the mayor of Charlotte doesn’t hold a lot of power, it's still an elected office and official corruption is a crime no matter the structure of government.  

As to the defense’s claim that Cannon’s illegal acts were an aberration, U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said Cannon took multiple bribes over a long period of time. She argued that shows it’s anything but an aberration.

As part of Cannon’s plea deal prosecutors agreed to ask for no more than five years in prison. Yesterday, they requested that Cannon be incarcerated for 37 months.

Credit Courtesy of United States Courts
US District Court Judge Frank Whitney. Judge Whitney also served as a military judge. Here he is presiding in his Bagram Airfield courtroom, Afghanistan.

After more than two hours of arguments, Judge Frank Whitney sentenced Cannon to 44 months in federal prison.

A key reason for the extra time is a clause in the federal sentencing guidelines. The clause is known as 5K1.1.

Kearns Davis, a former federal prosecutor now with the Brooks Pierce law firm in Greensboro says the clause allows the government to ask for a reduced sentence "where a defendant has provided substantial assistance to the government in connection with that case or another investigation."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Randall said Cannon had been truthful but provided nothing significant that would lead to further prosecutions.

Judge Whitney did not feel that was enough to shave off months of incarceration. He also felt the need to deter other public officials from taking bribes in the future. Whitney listed off eight other cases involving a North Carolina politician convicted of corruption. Their average sentence was around 47 months. Cannon was sentenced to 44 months since he had cooperated with prosecutors.

But Davis, the former federal prosecutor, says Cannon is likely to serve much less if he earns time off for good behavior.

"So in this case with a prison sentenced imposed of 44 months I would expect he would serve a little bit over 37 months or a little bit more than three years."

Cannon’s lawyers asked the sentence not begin before December 30, so Cannon could celebrate four birthdays, a wedding anniversary and Christmas with his family.

Judge Whitney said no. Now Cannon waits to be told when to report to prison.

U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said the punishment was just.

"Patrick Cannon betrayed the citizens of Charlotte through is bribery scheme and today he paid the price for that. This doesn't make Charlotte a corrupt city," she told a crowd of reporters,"this is an instance of corruption that we have found but that doesn't stain this city forever."

Then she was asked about the original case of possible corruption that put Patrick Cannon on the FBI’s radar.

"The investigation is ongoing, therefore I won't be discussing any aspects of the case at all."

Not quite the definitive end many were hoping for.

Tasnim Shamma and Ben Bradford contributed to this story.