When U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell Jr. sentences Shirley Lasseter on a bribery charge Wednesday, he’ll be judging two women.
One is the disgraced former Gwinnett County commissioner who - according to court records - pocketed rolls of cash by selling her vote on a real estate deal and didn’t seem to mind that the development was supposedly financed with drug profits.
The other - described by friends - is a desperate, cash-strapped grandmother who lost her house and husband and succumbed to temptation when an undercover FBI agent flashed big bucks.
Both incarnations of Lasseter are the subject of numerous letters written to Pannell by Gwinnett residents hoping to influence the politician’s fate. Some urge the judge to show mercy, while others contend he should make an example of Lasseter.
Federal sentencing guidelines allow the judge to consider Lasseter’s character, the nature and circumstances of the offense and other factors. It’s unclear how much weight Pannell will give the public input.
Lasseter’s admirers plead for compassion, saying financial problems led her to make a terrible mistake.
“She is a 64 year old widow (and) grandmother and has an unblemished record until this,” wrote her friend, Jerry Robb of Duluth. “A lot of us love her for all the good she has done, and especially the veterans. The streets will not be any safer with Shirley incarcerated.”
Her critics say she’s done more harm than good in public life. They fear a light sentence will send the wrong message and argue that Pannell should impose the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
“Our public servants need a strong message from the courts that dishonesty and felony behavior will not be tolerated,” wrote Gaye McNeil of the group Citizens for a Better Gwinnett.
The facts of Lasseter’s crime are not in dispute. In June 2011, she met an undercover FBI agent posing as a businessman. He gave her $1,500 and said he would need her support on a Boggs Road development. “You’ve got my vote,” she responded, according to court records.
Lasseters friends say she needed the money. Shortly after she took office in 2009, her husband died and she lost her house to foreclosure. In January 2011, she was laid off from her job at the state insurance commissioner’s office.
Public records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show Lasseter’s financial troubles were nothing new. Creditors sued her or her husband on several occasions dating to at least 1998.
The money from the undercover agent, “She thought it was a godsend,” Robb said. “She was praying every night that God was going to help her get out of her financial situation.”
In the following months, Lasseter accepted a total of $36,500 from the agent in exchange for her vote. Court records indicate Lasseter expressed no reservations when the agent told her the development would be paid for with laundered drug-trafficking profits and that her son, John Fanning, had expressed interest in helping launder drug proceeds.
Fanning and Hall County businessman Carl “Skip” Cain also were involved in soliciting the bribe. They also transported what they thought was cocaine from New York to Atlanta. The two men pleaded guilty to bribery and drug charges.
All three defendants – confronted by investigators who had recorded their conversations – agreed to cooperate in a continuing corruption investigation. They all will be sentenced Wednesday.
To some residents, the lurid details – the drugs, the rolls of cash, the defendants’ seemingly eager embrace of corruption – demonstrate an utter disregard of the law. They say Lasseter’s financial troubles can’t justify her behavior, and that the apologies that have come since she pleaded guilty ring hollow.
“While Ms. Lasseter’s (apology) letter spoke about remorse for disappointing her friends and her lack of intent, to me her source of remorse seems to be based only on getting caught soliciting/accepting a bribe and that she must now go to prison,” Jim Regan of Citizens for a Better Gwinnett wrote to Judge Pannell.
Regain asked the judge to impose the maximum prison term.
Robb said he understands that sentiment. But he asked the judge to remember Lasseter’s good work as mayor of Duluth, which included raising private money for a memorial commemorating soldiers, firefighters, police officers and paramedics. He asked Pannell to take into account her financial problems.
“I would say desperate people do desperate things,” Robb said in the interview. “I’ve had my own financial issues in my life. You really don’t know what you would do.”
Robb said she’s living on Social Security checks of about $1,200 a month and can’t pay her bills. She recently moved into Robb’s spare bedroom “until she goes to jail or whatever’s next,” he said.
Lasseter declined to comment.
Brian McEvoy, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, said federal sentencing guidelines allow judges to take into account a defendant’s character and history. They also allow them to consider the deterrent effect that a sentence can have on others, including public officials.
“Those in positions of authority – political figures, judges, police officers – often have a challenge,” he said. “Many judges find they have a greater responsibility to themselves and the public. To whom much is given, much is expected.”
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