Artist sketch of Shirley Lasseter in Federal Court on Wednesday.
ATLANTA — A federal judge in Atlanta sentenced former Gwinnett County Commissioner and longtime Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter to nearly three years in prison Wednesday, marking the stiffest punishment yet in what’s been called a culture of corruption in Gwinnett.
Two sides to Lasseter were examined in court: the approachable and philanthropic mayor who shepherded a burgeoning Duluth to respectability, and the immoral politician broken by financial struggles and personal tragedy.
U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell Jr. sentenced Lasseter to 33 months in a minimum-security federal prison for accepting bribes in exchange for her support of proposed real estate developments. It was the sentence prosecutors had asked for.
Upon her release, Lasseter must complete three years of supervised probation, the judge ruled. He acknowledged Lasseter’s “great career” but added she “has brought all that to a tragic end, and that’s unfortunate.”
Once charged, Lasseter resigned her $31,670 a year Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners post and admitted swapping her objectivity in development votes for a series of bribes totalling $36,500, cognizant that one proposed pawn shop would be funded, in part, by supposed drug proceeds.
Lasseter’s attorney, Stephen Johnson, asked for a sentence of two years, given his client’s “substantial assistance” with federal authorities that led to bribery charges against Mark Gary, a Gwinnett businessman she had appointed to the county’s planning commission.
While Johnson pointed to Lasseter’s charitable achievements that included $120,000 raised for a Duluth High School scholarship program and an education lab in a low-income section of her city, he acknowledged that in 2009 Lasseter’s “four incredible losses” — her husband, her longtime home, her state-level job as an educator and her health — caused the loss of a fifth item: Her moral compass.
“She committed serious and troubling crimes as an elected official,” Johnson told the court. “She has brought shame and disrespect on herself ... and destroyed in a matter of months her stellar reputation.”
Lasseter’s son, John Fanning, 34, of Dacula, and Flowery Branch businessman Carl “Skip” Cain, 65, an associate of Lasseter’s, were also charged in the bribery scheme. The judge postponed their sentencing hearings until Sept. 18, to allow their attorneys more time to prepare.
Prior to Lasseter’s sentencing, two family members and longtime friends pleaded with the judge for leniency, as Lasseter, redheaded and donning a business suit, dabbed her eyes with tissues.
For her cooperation, which included working undercover and giving “multiple debriefings” to prosecutors, U.S. Assistant Attorney Doug Gilfillan agreed to the 33-month sentence — the low-end of applicable sentencing guidelines.
Lasseter’s youngest son, Justin Fanning, 31, painted her as a devoted mother who maxed out credit cards and piled loose change to provide for her family. She was crushed by her husband’s sudden, fatal stroke in 2009 and her health problems — from high blood pressure and herniated discs to two replaced hips — have continued to mount, Fanning said.
Said daughter Jennifer Limon: “The decisions of my mom and my brother have affected my family as a whole. We come here today ashamed and broken by their actions.”
Jerry Robb, a Vietnam War veteran, applauded Lasseter’s patriotism and efforts to erect a Sept. 11 memorial in downtown Duluth.
“The people in Duluth love Shirley,” Robb said. “I hope this one blemish will not outweigh all the good she’s done.”
Lasseter qualifies to serve her sentence at a minimum-security federal prison because she has no criminal record and poses no substantial threat to society. The facility will be a “camp” setting without walls, where inmates are commonly allowed to leave during the day and return at night, said U.S. Department of Justice spokesman John Horn.
She will be in custody for all 33 months, as there is no parole in the federal system. She will remain free on bond for the next four to six weeks until she’s notified by federal prison officials.
For her family’s sake, Pannell said he’ll recommend that Lasseter serve her time as close to Atlanta as possible.
Johnson said the closest appropriate facility is in Marianna, Fla., about 65 miles west of Tallahassee.
Lasseter’s crimes bear a stark contrast to the amicable “Mayor Shirley” image she projected for 14 years in Duluth.
In February 2011, Lasseter appointed her son and eventual codefendant Fanning, 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 Fanning teamed with Cain to leverage their positions for payoffs. Cain was allegedly 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.
Allegations against businessman Gary, revealed earlier Wednesday, show Lasseter’s underhanded dealings began at least two years before those matters.
Outside the courthouse, U.S. Attorney Sally Quillan Yates made an open plea for tips from Gwinnett citizens as her office’s corruption probe continues. Lasseter has provided information about “other conduct” that Yates would not divulge.
Yates said the investigation revealed that Lasseter had a clear objective to make more than her salary as a commissioner, beginning “almost the day she took office.”
“(Lasseter) began looking for ways that she could cash in,” Yates said. “She did that for a couple of years.”