ATLANTIC CITY — Mayor Frank Gilliam’s guilty plea in federal court to wire fraud for stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball league makes him a felon and has swept him from office, like five other Atlantic City mayors since the 1970s.
But it also leaves many unanswered questions — such as how much time will Gilliam spend in jail? And what became of funds raised at Gilliam’s March 2018 inaugural gala that were supposed to go to the Atlantic City charity Connecting the Dots?
While the government never said it was investigating Gilliam’s involvement with the charity, some interviewed by federal investigators said they were asked about it. But it was not mentioned in the charges.
Gilliam, 49, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in U.S. District Court on Thursday. It was an admission of guilt made as a private citizen, not involving an official misconduct charge.
That means he avoids a possible sentencing enhancement.
The plea agreement reveals a lot about the kind of information the government had and whether Gilliam is likely to have cooperated with the government in investigating others, said former federal prosecutor William J. Hughes, of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman Morristown in Morris County.
Gilliam, who posted a $100,000 unsecured bond for his release, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, according to the federal government.
But in reality, he’s likely to serve much less time, and may be able to avoid prison time altogether when he is sentenced by Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez on Jan. 7.
Gilliam’s attorney Harry Rimm negotiated the offense level down so low it carries an advisory guideline sentence of just 15-21 months in jail.
“That’s the advisory,” Hughes said. “The judge can sentence to anything he wants.”
Hughes said Gilliam could even get probation, home incarceration or a mix.
The offense level comes out of a complex mathematical formula, Hughes said, covering mitigating and aggravating factors, the amount of money involved; whether or not the person has accepted responsibility, pled guilty; and other factors.
Rimm also negotiated the right for Gilliam to move for a variance, meaning Gilliam can ask for a lesser sentence, Hughes said. He called Rimm’s performance masterful legal work.
In most cases in which the defendant is cooperating with the government in investigating others, there is no variance allowed, Hughes said, to keep leverage with the defendant.
The questions about other possible allegations have swirled for months around Gilliam, and are more difficult to address.
Last December three people who requested anonymity told The Press they had been interviewed by federal investigators, focusing on Gilliam’s involvement in Connecting the Dots, and/or handling of campaign checks.
But the federal charges did not mention either issue.
More charges are unlikely to come in the future.
“I can’t say the government never charges, then recharges,” Hughes said. “What I can say is that most lawyers seek to have a total resolution of an investigation or potential charges with a client when they agree to plead guilty.”
There has been no evidence of a state investigation, Hughes said.
Connecting the Dots President Patricia Tweedle, of Atlantic City, had no comment when contacted by The Press Friday, and hung up when a reporter tried to ask if the charity had ever received funds from the gala.
Connecting the Dots conducts educational enrichment programs like the upcoming ACT/SAT training and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math training programs.
The state Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment about whether it is investigating what happened to the gala funds, but said that charities in New Jersey must register and report information about their fundraising to the state under the Charities Registration Act.
Connecting the Dots has not registered with the state, according to the state Division of Consumer Affair’s online data base.
Gilliam became involved with Connecting the Dots at least as early as 2009. Gala tickets started at $300 and sponsorships ranged from $500 to $35,000. The event was at Resorts Casino Hotel with a lineup of celebrities, including former basketball player Dennis Rodman and boxing champion Evander Holyfield.
According to federal 990 forms and the IRS, the organization reported $5,274 in donations in 2015, and it filed electronic postcard 990 returns in 2016 and 2017 that gave few details, but stated it did not raise more than $50,000 in either year.
No further filings are available at irs.gov/.
The group may have filed an extension for filing its 2018 report, which was due in May 2019.
Gilliam was listed as working 10 hours per week for the group in 2015, but the 990 said neither he nor others who worked 5-25 hours a week were paid.
Nearly a dozen agents from the FBI and the IRS’ Criminal Investigation Division searched Gilliam’s North Ohio Avenue home for more than four hours on Dec. 3, 2018.
Sometimes the charges that come out after a big investigation are more narrow than expected, said Seton Hall University law professor Matthew Hale.
“The first thing that came to mind is, ‘Al Capone went away for tax evasion,’” Hale said after hearing about the charge against Gilliam. “I don’t mean to sound harsh, but oftentimes what they can prove in a court of law is different than the rumors you hear.”
While mail fraud is a serious charge, and “clearly one his lawyers and prosecutors knew they had him on. It is kind of a slam dunk,” Hale said. “ Oftentimes you take the slam dunk because getting the person out of public life and office solves the problem.”