ATLANTA — A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced John Fanning — the son and co-conspirator of former Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lasseter — and an associate to nearly five years in prison for their roles in a bribery and cocaine trafficking scandal.
Both sentences were substantially reduced in exchange for information Fanning, 34, a landscape business owner from Dacula, and Carl “Skip” Cain, 65, a Flowery Branch businessman, provided to federal prosecutors in an ongoing corruption probe in Gwinnett County.
Defense attorneys painted Cain as a decorated U.S. Marine who lost his way after a series of personal misfortunes, and Fanning as a caring father of three children whose role in the cocaine racket was minor.
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell sentenced both men to 57 months in federal custody, meeting the recommendations of prosecutors. The court found that neither was capable of paying fines or restitution. Both were released on previous bond conditions and will be expected to self-report to prison in four to six weeks.
Fanning, a former Gwinnett zoning board member, and Cain could have faced up to 10 years in prison, but their cooperation moved prosecutors to ask for more lenient sentencing guidelines, which the judge granted.
Both pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to sell Lasseter’s commission vote on a proposed real estate development project, and for conspiring to traffic cocaine in a related scheme introduced by Cain.
“This case was about unbridled greed,” said U.S. Assistant District Attorney Doug Gilfillan.
The longtime mayor of Duluth, Lasseter, 64, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison by the same judge earlier this month. She attended Tuesday’s hearing, forming a prayer circle with family beforehand and dabbing her eyes with tissues as Fanning expressed regrets to the court, the community and his family.
“I got presented with what seemed like a quick opportunity to make some money,” Fanning said.
Justin Fanning echoed the argument he’d made for his mother two weeks prior, telling the judge his older brother was an ethical person driven to crime by financial woes.
“He was very desperate to pay his bills,” he said.
As for Cain, attorney Bruce Kirwan called it ironic that a military hero was being sentenced by the U.S. government, though Cain blames no one but himself, he said.
Cain was awarded the prestigious Bronze Star while serving as a second lieutenant in Vietnam, where he helped thwart an attack in March 1970. Married 44 years, Cain fell on hard times in 2007 when a grandson was diagnosed with diabetes and needed financial support, followed by Cain losing his business and home in 2008, Kirwan said.
Kirwan said his client had been employed by a trucking company since 2010 but was barely making ends meet.
Gilfillan acknowledged that Cain was desperate, enough that he introduced the idea of running drugs to Fanning.
“Over the course of many months, there were many opportunities for them to bow out of it,” the prosecutor said.
In February 2011, Lasseter appointed Fanning 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 cash.
Fanning and Cain also used their businesses to launder $10,000 in cash, keeping what they thought was the standard fee for laundering drug proceeds.
The hearings Tuesday revealed that Fanning and Cain traveled to the New York area in September 2011 to retrieve what they thought was four kilograms of cocaine from drug traffickers, but was actually sham drugs provided by undercover FBI agents. They flew back to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport with the supposed drugs in a storage compartment, and both were instructed to deliver two kilograms. They were arrested a short time later.
There is no parole in the federal system. Fanning’s attorney, Bill Thomas, said even with a calculation for “good time” it’s likely Fanning, a father of three young children, will serve at least 85 percent of his sentence.
Fanning will also undergo treatment for issues with drugs and alcohol, Thomas said.
Like Lasseter, Fanning and Cain could qualify to serve their sentences at minimum-security federal prisons. The “camp” settings have no walls, and inmates are commonly allowed to leave during the day. Qualified inmates have minor criminal histories and pose no significant public threat.
Fanning requested to be housed at a minimum-security prison in Montgomery, Ala., while Cain requested to be as close to Atlanta as possible. The judge will forward those recommendations to the prison bureau, he said.
The judge weighed the possibility of taking Fanning into custody Tuesday, following an incident Friday when Fanning’s estranged wife reportedly tried to enter the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center with a handgun. The Fannings were attending a child custody hearing that day.
To arrest Fanning on Tuesday would be “like taking him into protective custody,” the judge said. “I don’t want a bigger tragedy to occur than already has.”
Thomas said Fanning no longer shares a home with his wife, and that another hearing is scheduled in three weeks that could resolve the matter.