An artist rendering from federal district court of John Fanning, left, Carl "Skip" Cain, Shirley Lasseter and an unknown attorney.
ATLANTA — Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, a seasoned government leader once praised for her motherly concern and reassuring presence in tense meetings, resigned from her post Thursday and pleaded guilty alongside her son in federal court to accepting bribes related to a real estate deal. A top federal prosecutor blasted the 64-year-old grandmother for selling her office and betraying her constituents.
Lasseter admitted to accepting a total of $36,500 in bribes in exchange for her vote in favor of a proposed pawn shop on Boggs Road near Duluth in District 1, which she has represented on the board since 2009. The former Duluth mayor of 14 years now faces up to a decade in federal prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 6.
Lasseter became the third commissioner to step away from the embattled board in the last two years while facing the possibility of criminal prosecution.
Lasseter’s son, John Fanning, 34, and Carl “Skip” Cain, 65, also pleaded guilty to participating in the bribery scheme and to cocaine trafficking. They both face up to 10 years in prison and a minimum of five years. All three defendants face fines of at least $250,000.
Fanning is a former member of Gwinnett’s zoning board of appeals, which his mother appointed him to. Cain, of Flowery Branch, is an associate of Lasseter’s who works in the trucking business.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said Lasseter “sold her office and betrayed the citizens” of Gwinnett. Lasseter has resigned her post on the Board of Commissioners, a county official confirmed.
Cain reportedly acted as the “bag man” for Lasseter and Fanning, arranging bribes required for their official approval and setting up meetings with them for the payment of the requested bribes. Cain was paid a total of $10,000, which he demanded as a fee for arranging the involvement of Lasseter and her son. Fanning’s cut was to be a 50 percent ownership stake in the pawn shop, Yates said.
An undercover agent told the defendants that he “laundered money for drug dealers and that drug trafficking proceeds would fund” the proposed pawn shop on Boggs Road.
Lasseter and Fanning both told the undercover agent the bribes could buy their approval. Lasseter also said it was possible that the county would buy any portions of the property that could not be developed profitably, officials said.
Officials at county and federal levels were unsure Thursday of the pawn shop’s proposed location.
In an ironic twist, Lasseter told the agent that “such a purchase would be difficult because a state special grand jury had investigated county land purchases,” resulting in similar charges and an indictment against former Commissioner Kevin Kenerly.
County spokesman Joe Sorenson said Thursday that the county officials were trying to process details of the case, which came as a total surprise. The county was evaluating what would be done with Lasseter’s unexpired term, he said.
“This is something that we’re going to have to figure out over the next couple of days,” Sorenson said.
The drug charges for Fanning and Cain stem from a trip the duo took to New York, in which they flew back with four kilograms of what they believed was cocaine. They returned to Atlanta with “sham” cocaine planning to make a delivery to a buyer, believing they were trafficking drugs and laundering money for the undercover agent.
Lasseter, whose term was marked by the death of her husband and self-described health ailments, had announced in February she would not be seeking another term. Her District 1 Commission seat includes the Duluth and Suwanee area.
In October 2010, Lasseter stepped in as the board’s interim chair to replace Charles Bannister, who resigned in lieu of being indicted on perjury charges by a special grand jury empaneled to investigate questionable land deals.
At the press conference, Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said he had approached the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office two years ago requesting assistance in probing a “culture of corruption” in Gwinnett County government. Those agencies made his request a priority, he said.
“As a prosecutor, and as a citizen of Gwinnett County, I’m shocked by this behavior,” Porter said, adding later: “I think people need to be more careful with who they elect.”
Porter said his office is working in conjunction with the federal agencies in an ongoing investigation. Yates declined to specify when the investigation started or what paths it may take next.
All three defendants were released on $10,000 bond Thursday, and Yates said all three are cooperating. She would not elaborate on how Thursday’s developments might affect other facets of the investigation.
In court, Yates said Lasseter indicated she “was certainly having discussions” about how she might sell her vote on the proposed privatization of the Gwinnett County Airport in addition to the proposed pawn shop.
“It was a discussion with folks where nothing ever happened as a result of that,” Yates said.
In court, Lasseter told U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell she was contrite.
“I truthfully regret that I took a bribe,” Lasseter said when asked why she did it, as reported by the Associated Press. “I’m very ashamed that I did something like that to embarrass not only myself and my constituents but the commission and Gwinnett County.”
Those sentiments echoed on the courthouse steps, where Fanning’s attorney, Bill Thomas, said his client is “remorseful about what has happened.” Fanning made no comment and both men declined to answer questions.
“Today marks the first step in the process for his taking responsibility for his actions, and his making amends and trying to set this right as best he can,” Thomas said of Fanning.
Lasseter has been absent from official Commissioners’ meetings since Feb. 21, citing health issues. A few days after that meeting, she announced her retirement from government, saying she planned to enjoy her grandchildren.
“It’s sad, but I’ve got a very good feeling of accomplishment,” Lasseter said then, citing a balanced budget and service delivery agreement between Gwinnett County and its cities as feathers in her cap.
As recently as Monday, Lasseter made a public appearance in official capacity, addressing a Memorial Day crowd at the county’s Fallen Heroes Memorial.
As the head of Duluth government, Lasseter was viewed as a mayor for the people, answering to the moniker “Mayor Shirley” as the city’s population grew exponentially. She once dressed as the Runaway Bride at a hockey game, bringing levity to a situation that had the city tensely searching for a missing woman. Another time she placed a bet with the mayor of Alaska when the Gwinnett Gladiators faced off with his team in a championship series.
Gwinnett’s top elected official, Commission chairwoman Charlotte Nash, said Thursday that news of Lasseter’s underhanded dealings was as unexpected as it was appalling. Nash said she was not familiar with a project or rezoning on Boggs Road that fit the one in question.
“Just as I felt we had made some progress and had begun to point the county in the right direction, we are faced with this serious setback,” Nash wrote in an email. “I am just sick for all of Gwinnett County.”
Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris, who supplanted Lasseter when she left for the higher office, said Lasseter is still beloved and that news of her downfall had shocked the city.
“I think we’re all just feeling very sad and hurt in a lot of ways that she’d gotten into trouble,” Harris said Thursday night. “We just all respect her and love her.”
Staff Writers Tyler Estep and Keith Farner and editor Todd Cline contributed to this article.