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Corruption

The Shamelessness and Cowardice of Charlotte Democrats

Local television news reporter Joe Bruno put it nicely.

After disgraced former mayor and convicted crook Patrick Cannon filed this month to run for an at-large seat on Charlotte City Council, Mayor Vi Lyles released a statement responding to his attempted political comeback:

“There are a number of at-large city council candidates. As long as the qualifications to run for office are met, they have a right to seek votes from the residents of Charlotte.”

As WSOC’s Bruno wryly observed, “Two factual sentences. Zero opinion.”

Nor, it should be said, is there in Lyles’s statement any acknowledgement of leadership’s ethical imperative. The mayor instead exercised the sort of cowardly amoralism that rots self-government from the inside.

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Let’s start by recounting Cannon’s crimes and civic betrayals.

Not yet thirty-years-old when voters first elected him to office, Cannon, a Democrat, served on City Council from 1993 to 2005. He then stepped down before rejoining Council in 2009. In 2013, he won the mayor’s seat.

In March 2014, just three months after becoming mayor and roughly three years into the FBI’s investigation of him, federal agents arrested and charged Cannon with accepting nearly $50,000 in bribes. The pay-offs, which Cannon thought were coming from real estate investors with business before the city, included access to a luxury apartment in South Park, an all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas for Cannon and his wife, and a $20,000 cash bribe delivered to the mayor’s office in February 2014. Late in the investigation, Cannon suggested to agents that he was entitled to a $1.2 million kickback from a fictional development project.

Then-Mayor Patrick Cannon accepted a $20,000 cash bribe in his city office in February 2014, a scene captured by undercover agents’ video cameras.

In exchange for the payments and gifts, Cannon promised to use his position to advance the businessmen’s interests in the halls of local government.

Cannon resigned the day after his arrest, and in June 2014, he pleaded guilty to a single federal count of honest services wire fraud, an anodyne legal term that conceals the gravity of his transgressions. In October 2014, Judge Frank Whitney sentenced Cannon to forty-four months in prison.

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Cannon launched his campaign of redemption on the courthouse steps the day he pleaded guilty.

After apologizing for his actions, he observed, “I can only hope that the life that I live from now on will reflect both my remorse and my desire to still make a positive impact upon our city.” Whether or not we wanted him in our future, Cannon suggested he’d be there.

He also used his post-guilty-plea statement to characterize his misdeeds not as actions he took, but as events that simply happened, a linguistic habit he would refine over time: “I have acknowledged being guilty of accepting monies for constituent services, something that should never have been done while serving in elected office.” (Confronted with such a statement, one may reasonably ask: Who, exactly, did Cannon think perpetrated these misdeeds?)

Disgraced former mayor Patrick Cannon spoke to reporters after his guilty plea in June 2014. He immediately started downplaying his culpability.

Forthright admissions of responsibility mixed with attempted self-exculpation at Cannon’s sentencing hearing later in 2014. To be sure, the former mayor confirmed his guilt for Judge Whitney. But James Ferguson, Cannon’s lawyer, told the judge that Cannon couldn’t explain why he acted as he did. Ferguson said Cannon’s actions constituted a “flaw that led to this tragedy. … The lines got blurry.”

One of Cannon’s character witnesses at the hearing echoed this sentiment. “It’s almost like Patrick didn’t know how he got here,” she said — as though an Uber mistakenly dropped him off at the corner of corruption and venality.

Of course, Cannon’s actions weren’t an inexplicable one-off, a temporary lapse in judgment of the sort everyone suffers and then struggles to understand: No, he engaged in a years-long pattern of behavior. As U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins told the court, “In fact, we would argue his conduct became more brazen as time went on.” (The evidence: While Cannon was content to accept a few thousand dollars here and there early in his criminal career, it was just a month before his arrest that he accepted a heftier $20,000 bribe, which followed on the heels of his musing aloud that he ought to receive that $1.2 million kickback.)

Cannon then mercifully disappeared into a federal prison to serve his sentence.

After serving half of it, he was released in September 2016.

Less than a year later, his post-conviction return to public life began in earnest with a weekly radio show on Old School 105.3 FM. The station’s vice president, Doug James, touted Cannon’s “experience and story of tragedy to triumphant.” (Again the use of “tragedy,” suggesting Cannon was not a full participant in his own wrongdoing and unmaking.)

For his part, Cannon announced news of the show with a citation to Jeremiah 29:11: “ For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” The radio program — and Cannon’s return to public life generally — counted as part of the Lord’s plan, something ordained by God Almighty himself.

Patrick Cannon’s attempted journey back to public life started in earnest less than a year after his release from prison, when in 2017 he started a weekly radio show on Old School 105.3 FM. Cannon’s announcement of the show’s launch linked his return to public life to the designs of God Almighty himself.

Cannon’s probation ended in 2019, which allowed him to once again seek public office. (It also allowed him to vote again, something he did illegally in October 2014 following his June 2014 guilty plea.)

And now he’s filed to run for public office, one of six Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to four at-large Council spots. (The primary election will be held on May 17, 2022, with the general election to follow in July. For all practical purposes, Charlotte is a one-party city dominated by Democrats, so the winners of the primary will likely earn seats in the general election. And that means if Cannon can just avoid finishing fifth or sixth among fellow Democrats, odds are that, as a matter of raw demographics, voters will once again install him in a position of public trust.)

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Cannon has predictably sounded themes of redemption and forgiveness since filing as a candidate for City Council — all while suggesting he is somehow less-than-fully responsible for the crimes he committed.

The written statement he issued upon filing as a candidate, which was quoted in the Charlotte Observer and Axios Charlotte, said he took responsibility for his actions, but then added an apology for his “shortcomings” while passively lamenting “a fall that was taken.” Neither of these phrases reflects a robust, unreserved acceptance of responsibility.

When Cannon sat down with WSOC’s Joe Bruno, he made similar remarks. “I wasn’t thinking, obviously, there was no rhyme or reason,” he said. (Cannon would repeat the rhyme-or-reason comment for WFAE, though he elaborated a bit more: “Honestly’s there’s no rhyme or reason as to why it was done” — again, the disembodied, unnamed, unknown actor — “and I make no excuses for it.”)

Bruno asked Cannon if he expected the public “to put the blinders on,” and Cannon responded, “No, no. … In as much as what happened was wrong, and I would never condone it.” Once more Cannon described actions without an actor — “what happened” — while adding a bizarre observation that he would never condone “it” — with “it” being his own years-long scheme to monetize his public service while violating a series of federal anti-corruption laws. Again and again, Cannon resorted to characterizing his own actions as events that simply occurred, telling Bruno, “And I can’t tell you any real reason why something like that took place.”

Not to worry if Cannon’s hedging raises eyebrows. He offered Bruno a solution to any lingering mistrust people might feel toward him: “[I]f I am in a meeting with someone, I am not in a meeting alone. A staffer or someone else but I don’t look to have a meeting in a silo.” The would-be councilman needs a chaperone to make sure he doesn’t again indulge his habit of taking bribes. This is not the plan of a man who has outgrown his fondness for stuffing wads of cash into his breast pocket.

Patrick Cannon, convicted crook and disgraced former mayor, hopes his party will choose amoralism over decency and once again elevate him to a position of public trust.

Cannon continued to eschew responsibility when he sat down with WFAE. He explained, “A deer in headlights. At my lowest point ever. Just feeling like this has got to be the worst nightmare ever and you hope someone pinches you. But then you don’t get that pinch.” When it comes to his corruption, Cannon views himself not as a man who chose wrong over right, but as a dumb animal with no moral sense whatsoever. And when he considers his misdeeds and their consequences, he sees himself not as their conscious cause, but as their unconscious audience. (He repeated this deer-in-headlights simile to WCNC’s Hunter Saenz.)

He also told WFAE that he appreciated it when former City Manager Ron Carlee once observed that he thought Cannon’s sentence was too stiff, saying it was “admirable of him to suggest that what I got wasn’t fair considering what others had not gotten at all but had done things far worse.” Here Cannon channeled Donald Trump and his penchant for expressing his own opinions by citation to others: “A lot of people are saying …,” Trump would aver. By pointing to Carlee’s comments, the disgraced former mayor got to introduce his real feelings — “I’m one of the victims here, too!” — without saying them outright.

Despite Cannon’s half-acceptance of responsibility, he thinks we, the people of Charlotte, owe him forgiveness. “Can we as a community send a message to anyone that has fallen short to say, we are a city and/or a people of second chances?” he asked in the written statement issued after filing for office.

There surely exists some duty to forgive our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and, yes, our political leaders — who are, after all, only human. They will often err and make mistakes — sometimes serious ones.

But any obligation we possess to forgive those who wrong us does not include an imperative to act foolishly: We can forgive the burglar who breaks into our home, but we needn’t give him a key the next time we leave town. And until we consider and reject as a candidate for public office every single person in Charlotte who hasn’t violated the public trust by taking bribes, we needn’t give Cannon a place at the Council dais out of a misguided sense of civic clemency.

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Cannon’s effort to regain a seat at the political table should not shock us: Those who suffer from shamelessness tend to act shamelessly. It’s who they are and what they do. We all saw who Patrick Cannon was in 2014, and we shouldn’t be surprised when he shows us again.

But what about other Democrats?

As elected officials, candidates for public office, or representatives of the party or other, affiliated organizations, they have a duty to speak out regarding Cannon’s candidacy and his unfitness for public office.

The question is simple: Do they think a man who accepted bribes and kickbacks is fit to again serve in one of the very offices he held when he acted so corruptly?

Out of ignorance or cowardice or some toxic combination of the two, it seems no Democrat in Charlotte will publicly say.

As noted above, Mayor Vi Lyles could bring herself only to utter an unremarkable, two-sentence statement that failed to address in any way the ethical questions raised by Cannon’s candidacy.

Mayor Vi Lyles couldn’t bring herself to say that a man who accepted cash bribes in the literal office she now occupies isn’t fit to hold the public trust.

Councilman Braxton Winston, who’s running for re-election to one of the Council’s four at-large seats, also dodged the issue with an observation similar to Lyles’s: “I think that voters determine whether someone is qualified to run for office.” (True, of course, but non-responsive.)

Likewise Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera, who is also seeking re-election to an at-large seat and who said the voters “will decide who represents them.” She added that she intends to focus on “addressing the displacement, crime, and congestion in our city,” suggesting the obligations of elected officials are exclusively to be found in the value-free work of the technocracy, with no ethical dimension to their duties.

It appears none of the other Democratic candidates for an at-large seat — Councilman Larken Egleston, former Councilman James Mitchell, and former Councilwoman Lawana Mayfield — have publicly spoken about the disgrace that is Cannon’s candidacy.

Nor, it appears, have any other Democrats or representatives of organizations that work closely with Democrats.

For example, Stephanie Sneed, chairwoman of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, would say only that like all candidates, Cannon would be invited to seek the group’s endorsement and that whether he’d secure it remains an open, undecided question.

And while some Democrats have chosen silence in the face of Cannon’s candidacy, other political players are actually touting his bid for office as an affirmative good.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP, told Axios Charlotte that Cannon had a good track record while in office, suggesting he would be an asset back on Council. “It’s time to move on,” she said of his corruption.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP, said she believes we should “move on” and forget that Patrick Cannon sold his office the last time he held the public trust.

Cannon told WSOC that Mack is among the community members encouraging him to run, along with Rev. Dwayne Walker, pastor at Little Rock AME Zion Church. And he told WCNC that “a number of reverends and church leaders as well as law enforcement officials” support his run.

The absence of any prominent voices from the Democratic Party publicly speaking out against Cannon’s fitness for office tells a tale of moral barrenness among Charlotte’s political class.

*******

Cannon himself possesses no shame and therefore acts shamelessly. There’s nothing to be done about that, nor should it come as a surprise.

Local Democratic leaders — office holders, office seekers, and other functionaries — possess either no shame or plenty of cowardice or some mix of the two.

It’s left solely to us, then, the voters. We’ll decide: Is Patrick Cannon who we are? Shall we entrust the commonweal to a convicted swindler who tells us he’s not responsible for his own misdeeds and instead casts himself as an innocent victim of his own corruption?

These questions, in turn, require us to ask more pressing ones: Are we, the people, as ethically bankrupt as the Queen City’s governing elite? How did our community come to suffer a civic life in which shameful public acts are met with silence? And may we yet hope to hear and heed voices of political change and moral courage?

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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