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Posted: 3:40 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012

Widening Gwinnett probe sends ex-official to prison

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Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com
Former Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lasseter (far left) leaves federal court with legal representatives and family members after being sentenced for bribery in Atlanta on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.

By Bill Rankin and David Wickert

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A federal judge Wednesday sentenced disgraced former Gwinnett County Commissioner Shirley Lasseter to prison as prosecutors made it clear their ongoing corruption investigation is widening.

Lasseter received a 33-month prison term for her role in a mushrooming scandal involving suspicious land deals, backroom payoffs and an undercover federal agent eager to dole out wads of cash.

Lasseter, a 64-year-old Republican, was mayor of Duluth for 14 years before being elected Gwinnett commissioner in 2008 representing District 1. Last year she became the third commissioner in Georgia’s second-largest county to leave office since 2010 amid accusations of wrongdoing.

Lasseter did not speak before being sentenced, but two of her children begged U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell Jr. for mercy.

“Today, she is very broken and lost,” Lasseter’s daughter, Jennifer Limon, said while choking back tears. “Once we used to hold our heads high in our community. Now we bow our heads in embarrassment.”

Lasseter was ensnared in an undercover FBI investigation in the summer of 2011. All told, she accepted $36,500 in bribes from the undercover agent posing as a businessman who paid her off in exchange for her vote on a proposed real estate development in Lasseter’s district on Boggs Road.

Lasseter faced a minimum 46-month sentence before Pannell granted a motion by prosecutors to reduce the term in exchange for her cooperation after being charged.

The cooperation included secretly recording conversations and provideding information that led directly to charges brought Wednesday against Lawrenceville businessman Mark Gary, who prosecutors say bribed Lasseter in a separate case.

Gary’s lawyer, Paul Kish, indicated prosecutors are considering other targets, noting that Gary has been cooperating with authorities since December.

While reducing Lasseter’s sentence, Pannell did not grant the two-year sentence requested by Lasseter’s federal public defenders.

Lasseter wiped away tears sitting at the defense table listening to her children express their love and ask Pannell for lenience.

Pannell did not send her directly to prison, allowing her to turn herself in four to six weeks.

Two of Lasseter’s former colleagues on the commission, Charles Bannister and Kevin Kenerly, resigned in 2010 in the wake of a grand jury investigation into other real estate deals. Kenerly, later indicted on bribery charges, has an upcoming hearing in Gwinnett Superior Court.

A series of articles published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009 prompted a Gwinnett grand jury investigation of suspicious county land deals, and Lasseter was called to testify before that grand jury.

The grand jury’s report, released in October 2010, chastised Lasseter for lacking a basic understanding of the county’s land acquisition process and her role as policymaker. It did not accuse her of criminal wrongdoing.

But Wednesday’s charge against Gary revealed that Lasseter took a $30,000 bribe more than a year before the report was issued. Then she took more bribes from the undercover agent in the months after it was released.

After the sentencing hearing, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said it’s clear that Lasseter was seeking to make money from her office “almost from the day she took office. … This is really nothing short of appalling.”

The undercover FBI investigation led to charges against Lasseter; her son, John Fanning, the former member of Gwinnett’s Zoning Board of Appeals; and Hall County businessman Carl “Skip” Cain. Both Fanning and Cain pleaded guilty in May; their sentencings were rescheduled for Sept. 18.

Lasseter, her son and Cain were lured into the scheme even though the undercover agent told them gave them an audacious story about his background. He said he laundered illegal drug money and was using the proceeds for the proposed Boggs Road development.

The puported drug connection stopped none of the three defendants from embracing the bribery scheme. Later, Fanning and Cain eagerly joined an even more shocking ruse concocted by the undercover agent; they agreed to fly to New York to retrieve what they thought would be a multi-kilogram shipment of cocaine and bring it back to Atlanta for sale.

The two men flew to the New York area, picked up the sham cocaine shipment but were apprehended before they made their scheduled deliveries.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Gilfillan told Pannell that Lasseter knew all about this. “In 2009, she lost her moral compass,” he said.

Lasseter’s attorney and the four character witnesses painted a portrait of a tireless public servant who devoted her adult life to improving her community.

They said she was a mother of four who worked 70- to 75-hour work weeks juggling two jobs and helping build Duluth into a bustling city, repaving sidewalks, building a new City Hall and setting aside land for parks.

In 2009, Lasseter lost her husband of 14 years to a massive stroke, her home of 25 years to foreclosure and her state job, her primary source of income. She then deteriorated physically with heart and back problems and mentally with depression, her lawyer, federal defender Stephen Patrick Johnson, told Pannell.

Johnson acknowledged those misfortunes did not excuse Lasseter’s criminal behavior, but asked Pannell to give Lasseter credit for her years of distinguished public service.

Pannell followed recommendations by prosecutors to give Lasseter a 33-month prison term.

“The defendant obviously had a great career at one time,” he said, “and now has brought all that to a tragic end.”


UNMATCHED COVERAGE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported on suspicious Gwinnett County land deals and other projects – including a waste transfer station proposed by developer Mark Gary – in 2009. The newspaper found politically connected developers won County Commission approval for their projects, sometimes at the expense of taxpayers.

The following year, a special grand jury concluded Gwinnett spent millions of dollars too much for park land in deals that benefitted commissioners’ political allies. The newspaper has continued to follow developments, including bribery charges against former Commissioners Kevin Kenerly and Shirley Lasseter and an ongoing federal corruption investigation.

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