Prison time for 2 more in Gwinnett scandal

Two more figures in the Gwinnett County corruption probe were sentenced to prison Tuesday, and an attorney for one said the continuing investigation involves “significant” people.

U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell Jr. sentenced John Fanning and Hall County businessman Carl “Skip” Cain to four years and nine months in prison for their roles in a bribery and drug trafficking scheme that has tainted Georgia’s second-largest county. Pannell could have sentenced the men to up to five years and 11 months under federal sentencing guidelines.

Fanning is the son of ex-county commissioner Shirley Lasseter, who was sentenced earlier this month on a related bribery charge. Both men admitted they helped arrange bribes for Lasseter.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Gilfillan noted that both Fanning and Cain, after being arrested last fall, immediately turned government snitch. They took on undercover roles, secretly recorded conversations with targets and provided substantial assistance to the investigation of other, unnamed individuals, the prosecutor said.

Fanning’s attorney, Bill Thomas, said his client had provided evidence against “significant individuals.”

Asked after the hearing about his comments to Pannell, Thomas declined to name targets of the probe, saying it would be unfair to them if they are never charged with a crime.

But Thomas said: “You can imagine that in any sort of investigation like this you’re not dealing with run-of-the-mill individuals … This wouldn’t involve some low-level bureaucrat responsible for trash collection.”

Gilfillan told Pannell the case was about defendants who were willing to do almost anything for money.

“This was about unbridled greed,” he said.

The prison terms were the latest development in a federal investigation that already has led to charges against four people:

*Lasseter pleaded guilty to accepting $36,500 in cash from an undercover FBI agent last year in exchange for her vote for a Boggs Road real estate development. Pannell sentenced her to 33 months in prison.

*Fanning, appointed by Lasseter to the Gwinnett County Zoning Board of Appeals, also pleaded guilty to bribery, admitting he offered to use his position to help win approval of the Boggs Road development. Cain also admitted to participating in the bribery scheme.

*Cain and Fanning also pleaded guilty to drug charges. During the bribery investigation, Cain expressed interest in making money from drug trafficking and, after the undercover agent concocted a story that he was laundering drug proceeds, Fanning said he was “totally on board,” court records show. The agent later arranged for them to transport the 4 kilograms of fake cocaine from New York to Atlanta, where they were apprehended shortly after landing at DeKalb Peachtree Airport.

*Local developer Mark Gary earlier this month was charged with one count of bribery for allegedly paying Lasseter and Fanning $30,000 in casino chips in exchange for Lasseter’s 2009 vote for a waste transfer station Gary planned to develop. Gary’s attorney has said he plans to plead guilty to the charge, but a hearing date has not been scheduled.

All four have been cooperating with federal authorities.

Lawyers for Fanning and Cain asked Pannell for leniency and to consider the dire financial circumstances the two men faced at the time they committed their crimes.

Cain, 66, was a decorated Marine lieutenant during the Vietnam War, his lawyer, Bruce Kirwan, said. Cain was awarded the Bronze Star for a 1970 action in which he took an exposed position under heavy gunfire to locate an enemy’s position and save more soldiers from becoming casualties.

“He’s a man who put his life on the line for the United States of America,” Kirwan said. In recent years, Cain lost his business and his home and became so destitute his wife sold all her jewelry to help pay bills, Kirwan said.

Speaking briefly, Cain thanked Kirwan for what he said but added, “It does not excuse my actions or my behavior.”

Cain, who has been described in court filings as Lasseter’s “bag man,” had repeated meetings with the undercover agent after initially expressing interest in running drugs to earn extra cash, Gilfillan said.

“Not once, did he ever say, ‘No, I’m not doing it,’” Gilfillan said. “Mr. Cain went badly off the rails.”

Pannell agreed.

“Mr. Cain came a long way from honorable service in the Marine Corps,” the judge said after imposing the 57-month sentence.

The judge said he could imagine someone being lured into taking bribes if faced with a financially devastating situation. “But I don’t think I’d have ever stooped to hurting other families by getting involved in the drug business,” the judge said.

Fanning, 34, told Pannell he was aware of the harm his actions would cause to his three young children.

“I take full responsibility,” he said. “It’s nobody’s fault but my own. … I know what I did was wrong. I feel horrible about it.”

After imposing the sentence, Pannell looked at photos of Fanning’s children that Fanning’s brother, Justin Fanning, had given the judge before begging for mercy.

“It really kind of breaks your heart,” the judge said. “I know this hurts them. But that was your decision, not mine. And you certainly didn’t show any concern about other families with the cocaine you were trying to import.”

Pannell allowed Fanning and Cain to remain free on bond until the U.S. Bureau of Prisons tells them to turn themselves in — typically four to six weeks. Fanning is under house arrest with a GPS bracelet.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway attended Tuesday’s hearing. He said the defendants’ behavior “has had a tremendous cost to Gwinnett.”

“It’s left a bruise that is going to take a long time to heal,” Conway said. “It makes me angry for someone to violate the public trust like Shirley Lasseter and John Fanning did.”