Charlotte mayor’s arrest taints city’s image

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In this photo taken on Nov. 7, 2013, Charlotte Mayor-elect Patrick D. Cannon holds a post-election news conference in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, Jeff Siner)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Patrick Cannon’s rise to mayor began with his election to City Council in 1993, at a time when Charlotte was emerging as a major banking center.

Gleaming skyscrapers began painting the skyline of a New South city that had a fledgling NBA team and an NFL franchise on the way.

Cannon was a reflection of the up-and-coming city — a young businessman and politician with a made-for-TV backstory. He’d been raised in a housing project by a single mom and mentored by some of Charlotte’s most powerful political and business figures, before building a successful parking business in the shadow of the downtown office buildings.

After he was elected mayor in November, the 47-year-old Democrat promised to tackle tough issues facing Charlotte and build on the success of the 2012 Democratic National Convention that put Charlotte on a national stage.

But Cannon’s career came to a stunning halt Wednesday when he was arrested and accused of accepting more than $48,000 in bribes from FBI agents posing as businessmen who wanted to work with North Carolina’s largest city. He resigned hours later, less than six months after taking office.

Cannon’s arrest was another hit to the city’s image, which lost thousands of jobs in the wake of the 2008 banking meltdown. Also on Wednesday, Charlotte-based Bank of America agreed to pay $9.5 billion in a settlement with the federal government to resolve claims that the bank violated securities law while selling mortgage bonds.

Before Wednesday, no Charlotte mayor or city official had faced corruption charges. In fact, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican and former mayor of Charlotte, said the city’s clean reputation served as a recruiting tool.

Cannon’s downfall has stunned the city of 760,000 people.

“People are disappointed, and it will really shake the political class of Charlotte to say ‘We’re not immune from this.’ And I think whoever is appointed to be the next mayor will have to promote open, clean government just to insure that this is a onetime incident,” said J. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.

Parks Helms, a Charlotte attorney who served in the North Carolina General Assembly for 10 years and the county commission for 16 years, said Cannon appears to have wasted immense potential.

“I think he had such promise as a new, young elected official, and he had such potential,” Helms said. “But he just squandered it all because of the way he conducted himself with these bribes which are referred to in this affidavit.”

According to the criminal complaint, Cannon accepted more than $48,000 in cash, airline tickets, a hotel room and the use of a luxury apartment as bribes, and he solicited more than $1 million more. If convicted on all charges, Cannon faces up to 50 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines.

The investigation began in August 2010 after a tip from a local undercover officer about public corruption. At the time, Cannon was a councilman.

The complaint said Cannon bragged to agents about his close relationship with McCrory and a meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama. The mayor accepted cash from agents posing as real estate developers in exchange for access to city officials responsible for planning, zoning and permitting, the complaint said.

On the last occasion, a private meeting in the mayor’s office on Feb. 21, the developer gave Cannon a briefcase filled with $20,000 in cash.

Cannon’s attorney James Ferguson did not return repeated telephone calls Thursday.

Cannon, a longtime radio show host and the founder of E-Z Parking, replaced former Mayor Anthony Foxx, who was named Transportation Secretary by Obama.

Friends said Cannon was driven to be successful.

When Cannon was 5, his father was found dead of a gunshot wound. He was raised by his mother, Carmen, who worked on a truck assembly line.

After graduating from South Mecklenburg High, he earned a degree in communications with a minor in marketing from historically black North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.

McCrory’s older brother Phil McCrory mentored Cannon in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

In an interview during the mayor’s race, Cannon said he held a number of jobs after graduating college. But his life changed when he received a call in 1996 from Hugh McColl, who was chief executive of the company that would become Bank of America.

Cannon said McColl asked him for the names of minority vendors in areas such as security and parking management. Cannon said he researched the parking industry, then called McColl for help starting his own parking company. E-Z Parking now manages 25,000 spaces for businesses — many in the central business district the city calls Uptown.

Whatever Cannon’s fate, Helms said Charlotte will need time to restore its image.

“We have always taken a great pride in the image of Charlotte as a leading New South city. We have big egos. We’d like to think we are No. 1, and we’ve always prided ourselves on having good, clean government,” Helms said. “And the charges that have now been brought against the mayor have sullied that reputation and have, I think, created an image that will be difficult to clear up in the short term.”

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