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Retiring City Attorney Helped Navigate Charlotte Through Battles With State Lawmakers, An FBI Sting

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann, December 2018.
Lisa Worf
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann may well have the best office in city hall. It’s in the shape of a triangle with windows across two sides, framing the length of Charlotte’s skyline.

"I’ve been looking out the window here for 24 years and watching this city grow into the city it is today," said Hagemann.

He's also been dealing with the politics, controversies, and crisis that have hit the city – like battles with state lawmakers, a mayor found guilty of corruption, and fallout from police shootings. 

Hagemann is retiring today. He joined the city’s legal team in 1994 and was promoted to city attorney seven years ago. He's worked closely with six mayors, and many city council members. 

"Helping them think through and see the potential consequences of their decision – legally and otherwise. So a lot of explaining a lot of analysis and imagining over that time," said Hagemann.  

He joined Morning Edition host Lisa Worf to talk about that work.

WORF: You've navigated the city through a lot of decisions. What were some of the most challenging times?

HAGEMANN: Well, the first thing I'd say is I didn't go looking for them. They came at us. Probably the most interesting case I got to work on was the fight over the airport. The General Assembly tried to, or did pass a bill, that created an authority and the legislation would have taken ownership and control of the airport away from the city. We were able to stop that with a lawsuit and a temporary restraining order. And over the course of about a year and a half were successful with our litigation.

WORF: That was just one instance of state lawmakers tangling with the city. What made that so interesting?

HAGEMANN: The stakes were very high. My client, the mayor and council, were obviously opposed to the effort. And you don't sue the state as a city every day or every week. So it was a very, very unusual and rare piece of litigation.

WORF: And what were the best times? 

HAGEMANN: The best times...working with the people. I've been fortunate. I've had 30 separate elected officials as my boss over the last seven years. I really admire each and every one of them. They're dedicated, hardworking, don't get a whole lot of reward in terms of compensation, but it's really, really gratifying to see that kind of commitment to Charlotte.

WORF: One of your bosses was Patrick Cannon who was arrested and charged and found guilty of corruption.

HAGEMANN: I'll never forget that day. I was walking down a hallway late for a meeting and I was surrounded by five or six guys in blue suits and they asked if I was the city attorney. When I said that I was they informed me that they were the FBI. They needed to talk to me alone in a room. At which point I scanned my life starting at age 15. What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? They took me in a room and informed me that they had arrested Mayor Cannon, taken him into custody, and were here to execute a search warrant.

WORF: It sounds like it took you by surprise. Was there anything in your dealings with him previously that would have given you cause for concern?

HAGEMANN: I was totally surprised. I had no reason to believe that that was going to happen that day. You don't wake up in the morning expecting that kind of an encounter. My job was to make sure that the city was properly represented and, most importantly, that was to fully cooperate with the federal government as they executed the search warrant and we responded to a very broad subpoena for records to help them continue their investigation.

WORF: The Keith Scott shooting...were you called on to give advice to city leaders and, of course, there was CMPD as well?

HAGEMANN: So we joke sometimes that us lawyers are janitors. We clean up after the fact. In all honesty, I was at the table and there were some legal questions, but most of it were decisions made in the department and with the mayor and city council.

WORF: What about as far as police video in releasing the video of that shooting? That was a clash between Mayor Jennifer Roberts and CMPD Chief Kerr Putney, who at first refused to release that.

HAGEMANN: So, yes, I did give advice and the advice was that they could release it, if they chose to do so, but were not required to at that time. And, then, they went ahead and made their policy decisions.

WORF: How thorny was it navigating that situation ,then, with two different bodies under your guidance,  conflicting with each other?

HAGEMANN: Well, that's an example of needing to know your role. My role is to give legal advice and not make the policy decisions or certainly the law enforcement decisions. So I gave my opinion, gave my advice, and, then, got out of the way.

WORF: You worked with politicians who have their own agenda. How often do you feel like your advice is not taken for those reasons?

HAGEMANN: I have a very good relationship. I've had a very good relationship with my bosses and it is rare that the advice I give them is not listened to, processed, and followed.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.