North Carolina’s reputation as a “clean government” state has suffered in recent years, with a host of high-profile arrests of public officials on corruption charges. The latest came 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. The cases involving former House Speaker Jim Black and former Gov. Mike Easley were well-reported beforehand. That isn’t so with Cannon. No one was expecting him to be arrested that Wednesday in late March.
At this stage, about all we know comes from what’s in the former mayor’s indictment:
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 allegedly accepted bribes from them beginning in January 2013. He’s alleged eventually to have taken $48,500, along with the use of a luxury apartment in Charlotte. He also allegedly took an all-expense-paid trip to Las Vegas with his wife. The FBI claims that Cannon demanded substantially more, including “a point” — 1 percent of the value — of a $125 million potential investment along Charlotte’s proposed streetcar line.
The indictment raises a number of questions. What law enforcement agency employed the undercover cop who initially tipped off the FBI? What sort of possible corruption did the tip involve? And what of that apparently ongoing investigation into “other individuals and other potential criminal activities?”
Why did the FBI target Cannon? And why did agents think he would take a bribe? That’s important, because as of now, Cannon only faces charges related to the money he allegedly took from the FBI — from what we know, the agency is not alleging that Cannon had participated in any other corrupt activities.
The obvious answer, according to the indictment, is that the FBI heard credible stories that Cannon might be willing to take a bribe. But is he the only official who might have been tempted? Is that the next step in the investigation? Or might Cannon cut a deal to testify against others?
Moreover, Cannon’s service as an elected official was not continuous. Cannon was on city council from 1993 through 2005 and then again from 2009-13, when he was elected mayor. So did Cannon seem willing to take a bribe during his first stint on the council or was it a failing he developed only after he returned to the board?
Put another way: The statute of limitations regarding any public corruption-related charges connected to Cannon’s previous council tenure probably has expired. Did anything that happened during those 12 years on the board shape the FBI’s investigation? Or did Cannon suddenly become so obviously corrupt that he attracted the FBI’s attention when he returned?
And if Cannon was on the take, were other recent Charlotte city actions influenced by money passed out in designer briefcases? Are other Charlotte city or Mecklenburg County officials, whether elected or on staff, on the take?
There are a lot of unanswered questions. 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.
Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.