Frank Gilliam

Frank Gilliam Jr. in his 1988 yearbook photo, left, and at a March 2018 event.

Inside Galloway Township’s Seaview Hotel and Golf Club for Stockton’s 2015 university weekend, Frank Gilliam Jr., an honored guest, was billed as having earned his master’s degree in social work from San Francisco State University.

It’s again highlighted in Gilliam’s one-paragraph biography on the city’s website, but this time, the University of San Francisco is listed.

Neither institution is able to verify that anyone by Gilliam’s name attended the schools.

News of a fake degree is not shocking to some close to Gilliam, whose first term as Atlantic City mayor has been marred by controversy. The FBI raided Gilliam’s home last week, and only a month earlier, he was caught on video getting into a fist fight outside the Golden Nugget Atlantic City’s Haven nightclub.

Checks and charity at center of FBI's probe of AC Mayor Frank Gilliam

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Councilman George Tibbitt in an interview last week. “He’s a phony.”

Born in 1970, Gilliam suffered tragedy at a young age.

At 3 years old, his father murdered his mother in their Hummock Avenue home. Frank Gilliam Sr. arrived at the house at 11:30 a.m. on July 11, 1973, to take his three children on a car ride. But he grew violent when his wife, Dolores, refused to give him the kids.

An argument followed and Gilliam Sr. followed her around the house with a penknife, according to a newspaper article from the next day. Dolores was dead by the time police arrived.

Gilliam Jr. was raised by his grandmother on Indiana Avenue. His father was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to a psychiatric facility in Trenton, court records show.

Friends believe the experience may have led Gilliam to a life in politics.

“It can shape you for the good, and maybe that’s what made him want to get into politics and help others,” said Fareed Abdullah, who ran against Gilliam in the 2017 mayoral race. The two have known each other since they were teens, when Abdullah said he admired Gilliam’s sense of style and charisma.

In a city where sports are a central part of life, Gilliam excelled. At 5-foot-9-inches, he was a starting guard on Atlantic City High School’s basketball team, the Vikings.

After graduating from high school in 1988, Gilliam moved on to Delaware State University on a basketball scholarship. It wasn’t long before he dropped out due to poor grades and partying, so he returned to New Jersey and began working as a bar porter at Bally’s Atlantic City.

Frank Gilliam

Frank Gilliam Jr. on the Atlantic City High School basketball team. He is in the bottom row in the center.

At an event at Stockton in July, Gilliam told students that in the early 1990s, he was “wreaking havoc” in Atlantic City and could have landed in jail.

“I had no idea, I had no clue, and I had no vision. I am in Atlantic City doing nothing but wreaking havoc, doing things I know I shouldn’t be doing,” he said.

But by 1993, Gilliam had a baby on the way and wanted to get a college degree to support his budding family, said Tony Bethel, who recruited Gilliam into Stockton University’s Economic Opportunity Fund program. The program helps low-income students get their diplomas.

“He looked at his time in Delaware as a blown opportunity,” said Bethel, assistant director of the Equal Opportunity Fund on the Galloway campus. “I think he went down there and had fun but didn’t succeed academically.”

As a guard during his sophomore year at Stockton, Gilliam had expressed frustration to Bethel about not getting enough playing time. He quit after playing eight games so he could have more time to find work, Bethel said.

That’s where Gilliam first met current Councilman Marty Small Sr., and the pair forged a strong friendship that would later crumble. On the night of his graduation, Small said, Gilliam took him to a night club in Cherry Hill, Camden County, to celebrate.

“We were very good friends at first,” Small said. “Things changed when he entered the political arena.”

With a degree from Stockton in criminal justice, Gilliam began looking for ways to make money, from car detailing and selling legal assistance to working for local nonprofits such as the Covenant House.

He launched a tutoring company in 2003 called Methodical Endeavors to teach financial literacy to adults, records show. His business partner was Cornell Davis, a former Atlantic City School Board president who was found guilty in 2008 of soliciting a bribe.

Gilliam became involved with a tutoring nonprofit called Connecting the Dots at least as early as 2009. His pricey inaugural gala called AC Rebirth was held in March and raised money for the group. Tickets started at $300, and sponsorships ranged from $500 to $35,000.

In 2009, Gilliam entered Atlantic City politics. He joined former Mayor Lorenzo Langford’s ticket vying for a seat on City Council.

For some, the then-39-year-old’s sudden appearances in City Hall were confusing.

“I didn’t know where he came from,” Tibbitt, who ran on a ticket with him in 2009, said. “I thought, ‘What makes you qualified?’”

That’s also when the once-cozy relationship between Small and Gilliam went south, and Small says his friend “changed.” Nearly 10 years later, Small still blames Gilliam for a flurry of “Recall Small” campaign signs he said cropped up around town shortly before the election.

“Believe me,” Small said, “I know it was him. ... Something changed when he entered politics. I can’t put my finger on it, but he changed.”

Once on the council, Gilliam successfully sponsored an ordinance that imposed a fine for releasing helium balloons outdoors to protect marine animals. He also introduced an ordinance to establish a citywide registry of abandoned properties.

Behind the facade of a confident elected official, those close to him say Gilliam often lashes out.

His former girlfriend, Mia Williams, received approval for a restraining order against Gilliam in 1997 in Atlantic County Superior Court, when the two were dating in college.

In December 2010, Gilliam allegedly assaulted a man on Atlantic Avenue, according to a report in The Press of Atlantic City. The man walked in front of Gilliam’s vehicle, and an argument ensued when the car nearly hit the pedestrian, police said at the time. Both were issued summonses.

And two summers ago, Small said his “tipping point” with Gilliam was when the then-councilman cursed at him outside City Hall in front of Small’s wife and children.

“If a vote didn’t go the way he wanted (in council meetings), he’d get a temper,” Tibbitt said. “He has a likable personality but can snap in a moment’s notice.”

How a mostly unknown figure in Atlantic City politics beat incumbent Republican Mayor Don Guardian was due in part to more than $240,000 his campaign raised and a super PAC called Our Atlantic City.

Former Councilman Craig Callaway, who has previously organized mail-in vote initiatives in the city, allegedly paid $30 each to messengers to deliver ballots that were filled out for Democrats, helping Gilliam secure an unlikely victory.

Only days after winning, Callaway said, the “real Frank Gilliam” surfaced, and outbursts became common. In a lunch meeting with Gilliam and several others a day after the election, Callaway said, the mayor became angry when someone asked him a question about his transition team and walked away from the table.

“More and more of the real Frank Gilliam started coming to life,” Callaway said. “I regret that I didn’t do more homework on this person.”

Contact: 609-272-7258 Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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