Patrick Cannon, Greensboro and the News Industry

On the same day that former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon was reported to have asked an FBI agent for illegal campaign contributions, I wrote within these pages “Some campaign contributions look like legal forms of extortion on the part of elected officials … donors appear to legally bribe legislators in exchange for artificially inflated taxpayer-funded profit.”

Most politicians prefer legal extortion and most special interests legal bribery, but it doesn’t make it any less wrong.

Sometimes Greensboro feels like a scaled down model of Charlotte, which is a microcosm of our political system. Taxpayer funded Downtown Greensboro Inc. (DGI) may be an example of the malady. DGI’s two main functions appear to be keeping downtown Greensboro streets clean, and giving away taxpayer dollars to board members, their friends, associates and tenants.

Very few Greensboro residents contribute money to Greensboro City Council campaigns, and few of those give more than $50. Even fewer give more than $50 to more than one candidate. I am unaware of a local taxpayer-funded organization whose last 20 board members, or their representatives, gave more to City Council candidates than DGI. I am also not aware of another organization whose board members or associates personally reaped more “economic incentive”, with the probable exception of totals for some on the Greensboro Partnership’s board, which has included some the same interests as on DGI’s.

In 2012, DGI President Ed Wolverton was let go and the board revamped to include some competing interests. The usual status quo had been described politely as legal collusion between friends. Many believe Wolverton was a sacrificial lamb.

Since then, newly hired DGI President Jason Cannon has been caught in the middle of feuding property owners. Agenda items voted on by the entire board before have been delegated to a select few “veterans” on the executive committee. During the February 17 executive meeting, $35,000 in grants were approved for a DGI board member. The entire board would have voted on the item before restructuring. The executive minutes state that “a concern was expressed that if board members are considered to be ineligible for grants, DGI may have a difficult time filling seats on the board.”

Executive Board members Sam Simpson, Dawn Chaney and Gary Brame did not respond to requests for comment.

Similar situations exist within a more direct political context in Greensboro.

Members of the Simkins PAC, which receives campaign money from and endorses City Council candidates, are heavily involved with Greensboro’s Civil Rights Museum imbroglio. City Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson is a Simkins PAC member, donor and endorsement recipient. Johnson was listed as a manager of the museum’s ICRCM, LLC along with Simpkins PAC member Skip Alston, before having her name removed ahead of participating in a City Council debate and vote on museum’s bailout. The City of Greensboro’s response to whether or not the for-profit Museum’s Landlord, which owns the property, could earn income from the property was “Possibly, if their museum tour/ticket sales increase.” The Rhino Times reported Skip Alston is one of two owners of Museum Landlord, LLC, and is listed as manager and agent.

I believe Alston stands to benefit, as he appears to be in line to own what could be a debt free, revenue producing property, from which he could take income. Alston threatened elected officials with Simkins PAC non-endorsements in the past.

Now that the city is under a transitional legal environment and the Museum’s issues resurfaced, whether or not Johnson has a fiduciary and/or indirect conflict of interest may determine the outcome of her fellow Simpkins PAC member’s involvement in the project.

Greensboro’s former City Attorney said Sec. 4.131 of the City Charter “must be considered.” The text states “Any officer, department head or employee who has financial interest, direct or indirect, in any proposed contract with the city … shall make known that interest and shall refrain from voting upon or otherwise participating in the making of such contract or sale. Violation of this Section with the knowledge expressed or implied of the person or corporation contracting with or making a sale to the city shall render the contract void.”

The crux of the issue is that City Council voted to provide money to pay debt guaranteed by the Sit in Movement, which doesn’t own the property.

The Sit in Movement is led by Alston, meaning Johnson voted to bail out a Simkins PAC member, as opposed to only saving the museum. Both Alston and Johnson did not reply for comment.

Charlotte’s for-profit news industry seemed blindsided by Patrick Cannon’s indictment and arrest for public corruption. Reporters and news executives have told me something like “that’s just the way it is” after being asked why they chose not to report on ethics issues related to campaign contributions. As campaign contributions flow into the news industry as advertising revenue, I respectfully disagree. !