By Michael Gordon
Taking six bribes in 13 months will cost former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon almost four years of his life.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney sentenced Cannon to 44 months in federal prison after the Democrat tearfully acknowledged taking more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents.
Cannon, 47, was also fined $10,100 and must forfeit more than $50,000 in assets to recover the bribes he pocketed.
To collect the debt, the government can seize any of Cannon's assets, whether illegally gained or not. Prosecutors are not expected to target the defendant's Ballantyne home, where his wife and his children will live after his imprisonment. Cannon could still be making payments to the government after he is freed.
Whitney's sentence more than doubled the 18 months sought by Cannon's attorneys. And it was seven months longer than what prosecutors had recommended.
The judge rejected Cannon's plea for "a forgiving spirit," and the prosecutors' request that Whitney reduce Cannon's sentence for cooperating with investigators.
Cannon will report to prison at a later date. He had asked to be free until Dec. 30, so he could celebrate family birthdays, Christmas and his anniversary. The birthday of his wife, Trenna, falls on the day he wanted to report.
Whitney rejected that schedule, though he did say he would recommend Cannon be sent to a prison near Charlotte, and that he receive alcohol and substance-abuse treatment his lawyers sought.
Normally, federal defendants report to prison within six to eight weeks of sentencing. Cannon has been free on bond since his March 26 arrest.
At 12:37 p.m., Cannon made history by officially becoming the first mayor since the city's founding to be sent to prison on corruption charges.
"Hopefully, you did not destroy Charlotte's image, but you have seriously tarnished Charlotte's image," Whitney told Cannon. "This court must send a message that public corruption is unacceptable and will be severely punished."
During earlier remarks to the judge, Cannon expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness. "I failed as a father," he said. "I failed as a husband. I failed as a servant leader. I failed as a citizen."
The judge and defendant faced each other for more than three hours in the judge's cramped courtroom -- the two key players in a hearing that swung from the drama of Cannon's contrition to the judge's meticulous calculations toward a punishment.
Outside the federal courthouse, Cannon virtually fought his way through a media scrum. In June, when he entered his guilty plea, Cannon tripped over a camera and fell on the federal courthouse steps. Tuesday, he was struck hard in the face by a microphone wielded by a reporter.
In court, Cannon sat between his attorneys, slowly rocking in his chair at times as James Ferguson and Henderson Hill pleaded his case.
A few feet away, his wife, Trenna, sat with his mother and other family members. Courthouse officials opened another room so the overflow of bystanders and media could watch events unfold.
Before announcing his decision, the judge gave a warning to the courtroom and beyond.
"To the citizens of Charlotte, we cannot let our guard down. We must not presume that public corruption does not happen here," the former federal prosecutor said. "While the name of Patrick Cannon hopefully will fade into our distant memories, let us never forget that a sitting mayor was susceptible to public corruption."
Whitney then aimed his remarks at the elected and government officials in his home city and state.
"Ask yourself this question: Is it worth destroying your reputation, betraying your family and friends, substantially diminishing your future earnings and receiving four years imprisonment -- all for taking some quick cash under the table? I hope the answer is no."
Cannon's single corruption charge covered five separate bribes the former mayor and City Council member pocketed between January 2013 and last February. Cannon also admitted being on the take from a Charlotte business owner, later identified by the Observer as strip-club mogul David "Slim" Baucom.
But prosecutors did not include a $1.25 million kickback Cannon solicited in the mayor's office last February. If they had, it could have tripled Cannon's sentence.
Whitney raised the issue during the hearing. Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Randall told the judge that Cannon's statement about the kickback was open to interpretation -- Cannon said he was joking -- and prosecutors would have needed additional hearings to introduce the $1.25 million in court. In light of Cannon's cooperation, Randall told the judge that the government had decided to drop it.
Yet prosecutors also acknowledged that while Cannon's cooperation had been helpful, it had not broken new ground in the case. U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said the investigation remains open, but no further arrests have occurred.
Asked outside the courtroom if her office had given up too much considering the information Cannon supplied, Tompkins said while "reasonable minds can differ" on what went into Cannon's plea agreement, the former mayor's sentence was "fair and just."
She told Whitney that Cannon's quick resignation from office and admission of guilt had spared the city a potentially divisive and crippling debate.
"We asked the court to recognize the value in that," she said.
'Give the man some room'
After Cannon spoke, Whitney ordered a short recess. When Cannon turned toward his family and friends, the longtime public servant was crying.
A line formed to greet him. He hugged his wife and others. He waved to friendly faces across the room. "I appreciate you," he said again and again.
It was the same expression Cannon used in February, after an undercover FBI agent handed him a brief case carrying $20,000 cash.
Cannon was the subject of an investigation starting in 2010. But Hill and Ferguson argued that Cannon's 13-monthlong acceptance of bribes amounted to an inexplicable break "in an extraordinary life."
Cannon, they said, overcame poverty and the violent loss of his father to be a fine student, a loving father and a dedicated leader.
Consider all these parts of Cannon, they asked Whitney, not just his crimes.
Whitney, a former prosecutor, picked up the thread.
"You're a good man, a very good man, but you have made serious mistakes," he said.
Whitney handed down 44 months, but Cannon may end up serving less. Prison officials can reduce Cannon's time for good behavior or for completing any treatment program he is allowed to enter. Prosecutors can also apply for an additional reduction depending on Cannon's continued help.
Afterward, Cannon and his wife left the courthouse in different directions, surrounded by their relatives, friends or attorneys. Cannon received the far greater jostling as he slowly worked his way past the cameras and microphones toward Mint Street and a waiting car.
"Give the man some room," longtime family friend Jerry Derrick yelled at the media swarming Cannon.
"He tried to get himself a little something and he got caught," Derrick later told a reporter. "Everybody's trying to do that, but he got caught."
Nearby, George Battle, senior bishop of the AME Zion Church, stopped on his way out of the courthouse to reflect on what he had watched inside and what had begun to unfold around him.
"It's a sad day," said Battle, a longtime figure in the city's educational and spiritual circles.
"I hope that the city can heal. I pray for the family. I pray for the city."
Rob Jones, Elizabeth Leland, Mark Washburn, Ames Alexander, Maria David and Rick Rothacker contributed.
(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)