DULUTH -- Raised in the once small-town furniture mecca of High Point, N.C., former educator Shirley Lasseter, regarded as an approachable every-woman not above tipping a cocktail with constituents, would helm one of metro Atlanta's more progressive cities through seismic change, en route to one of the more powerful government positions in Georgia's second most populous county. But with a 10-sentence e-mail on Thursday, the upward trajectory of Lasseter's political career came to a grinding halt.
Lasseter resigned her $31,670 a year Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners post and admitted swapping her objectivity in real estate development votes for a series of bribes totalling $36,500, cognizant that a proposed pawn shop would be funded, in part, by supposed drug proceeds. Before a U.S. District judge, with her co-defendant eldest son beside her, Lasseter admitted to -- and apologized for -- underhanded behavior that serves as the latest example of what Gwinnett's top prosecutor calls a culture of corruption.
But rewind to Lasseter's adopted hometown, Duluth, and you'll find longtime colleagues who still call her a philanthropic darling, despite crimes that could cost her up to a decade in federal prison and $250,000 in fines. In their eyes, Lasseter was the victim of foreclosure, ill heath and, above all, desperation. Her successor, Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris, said this week the city collectively "loves" Lasseter and was crestfallen by news of her decisions.
Thom Mash, an adjutant with Duluth's American Legion Post 251, where Lasseter had become a fixture with her late, former Marine husband, characterized her Friday as "a very loving and caring person." Known for her patriotism, Lasseter spearheaded efforts, in conjunction with the American Legion, for a burgeoning Memorial Day ceremony that began on the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, Mash said.
Before politics, Lasseter earned a degree from Brenau Women's College in Gainesville, then moved on to a master's degree in education from Georgia State University. Her role as an educator would be a constant.
Prior to her 14-year tenure as "Mayor Shirley," Lasseter worked as Duluth's marketing director, where she once said her gender and radical ideas for changing the face of downtown rubbed the old guard wrong.
In 1993, Lasseter, a Republican, ousted a mayor she respected, but who she thought was too mired in the status quo. She prided herself, she said, on the levity and an open-ear policy she brought to the position.
"You have to keep a sense of humor and a love for people," Lasseter told the Daily Post in 2007.
Lasseter retained her Main Street ethos as her once-sleepy city swelled. When she'd taken office, the 8.3-square-miles of Duluth included two parks and 9,000 residents and operated under a city budget of $4 million. In 2008, she left a city with slightly expanded borders and 27,000 people, six parks and a budget of $44 million. She championed the transformation of an old parking lot into the Town Green and the bulding of Duluth's $13 million City Hall.
The revived complex, she enthused in 2008, had become "a destination."
As major projects wrapped, Lasseter caved in to what she called years of prodding and successfully campaigned for the District 1 Commissioners seat. Her reasoning, as she told the Daily Post, was that she felt compelled to widen her scope and bring her acumen for creating parks and revitalizing neighborhoods to places like Sugar Hill and Suwanee. "I've accomplished most everything I wanted to do in the last 14 years," she said then, "so I'll go to the county and see what I can do there."
Favors, heartache and scandal
A year into her term, Lasseter appointed the younger of her two sons, Justin Fanning, to a non-paid slot on the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District. She called her son -- then a 28-year-old manager at the defunct Loafing Leprechaun restaurant near Gwinnett Arena -- her closest confidant, predicting he would keep her in touch with a district she badly wanted to see revitalized. Joe Allen, Gwinnett Place CID director, said Fanning served until he was replaced by commissioners in April.
Lasseter's favors to her sons did not end there.
In February 2011, she appointed her eventual co-defendant, son John Fanning, 34, a Dacula landscape business owner, to a one-year term on the county's zoning appeals board. Within months, according to federal authorities, corruption began when Lasseter and John Fanning teamed with Carl "Skip" Cain, 65, to leverage their positions for payoffs. Cain, a Flowery Branch business associate of Lasseter's, was paid $10,000 by an undercover agent posing as a businessman for brokering the involvement of Lasseter and her son.
Fanning's payment was to be a 50 percent ownership stake in a pawn shop business proposed for Boggs Road near Duluth. Time and again, as the bribes topped $36,000, Lasseter told the undercover agent she would give her official approval and vote for the project in exchange for the cash.
Fanning and Cain also pleaded guilty to drug trafficking for transporting four kilograms of "sham cocaine" from New York City to Atlanta as part of a related undercover sting. They face a minimum of five years in federal prison, where there is no parole.
Lasseter's longtime friend Jerry Robb, president of the Duluth Civitan Club, a service organization, said Lasseter, 64 and a mother of four, was devoted to her son John to a fault. The boys' father had long been out of the picture, Robb said.
"She's a good parent ... but Johnny has a temper," Robb said. "He needed harsh discipline."
The financial strain for Lasseter began almost immediately with the death of her husband of 18 years, Joe Lasseter. Called her "biggest cheerleader" by Lasseter, Joe, 72, who handled finances at a Nissan dealership, succumbed to a stroke a year into her tenure as Commissioner.
"I am so saddened to even tell you this -- I am just beside myself," Lasseter wrote in an e-mail to friends at the time.
That same year, Lasseter lost her job as public safety education director for Georgia's Department of Insurance and Fire Safety when Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine launched a failed bid for governor and later joined a private law firm.
Months after her husband's death, Lasseter's home in the Howell Wood Subdivision -- where she'd lived since buying the $224,000 property with her first husband in 1974 -- was foreclosed and sold at auction outside the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, deed records show.
Robb said she was forced to move into a two-bedroom apartment, sharing it with her youngest son and his dog, a friendly Boxer. Given her age and two hip replacements, Robb said Lasseter had been unable to find a job outside of her commissioners duties, and soon became destitute. She called Robb for help on a recent Sunday morning when her small, gray SUV ran out of gas.
"Her gas gauge was broken," Robb said. "Every 250 miles, she'd just fill it up, but something happened that time."
The day Lasseter pleaded guilty to bribery, she sent a brief e-mail to county administrator Glen Stephens tendering her resignation. County spokesman Joe Sorenson said Lasseter had no blemishes on record during her four years with the board. She had not attended an official meeting since late February, citing health issues.
"I deeply regret the harm I have caused to those I have served, and the trust I have betrayed," Lasseter wrote in the email to Stephens. "Please know that I am ashamed of my actions ... I wish I could have discussed this matter with you sooner, but I was not able to do so due to the sensitive nature of the case."
As a show of support, Robb said he opened a "Shirley's Fund" account Friday at Gwinnett Community Bank in Duluth. He's seeking check donations.
"I'm not exactly sure how (Lasseter) got caught up on this mess," Robb said. "She couldn't share with her friends that she was broke. I wish she had."
Others in Lasseter's district feel her actions are inexcusable, no matter the circumstances.
Suwanee resident Hank Freedman said its paramount that justice be brought for Lasseter, Fanning and Cain, and that light be shed on their misdoings.
"It's important that this news, this information, is brought to the attention of the public," Freedman said. "I feel very sincerely that this lady and the other members that are equally guilty of what they did should have to pay the price."