Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. was forced from office last week after pleading guilty in federal court to wire fraud, a felony. He stole $87,000 from a youth basketball league.
His short and ineffective leadership began in fall 2017 with campaign promises to improve relations with other levels of government, reduce spending “to the bare bones” in the nearly bankrupt city, make the resort friendlier to business and try to get more money from the state.
Gilliam’s election prompted charges of substantial vote fraud by his opponent. Mayor Don Guardian provided a lot of evidence for his claim that a couple thousand votes were paid for or cast by deceased or nonresident people. One witness recorded getting paid $30 to vote for Gilliam’s Democratic ticket, while another’s deposition described being among 11 people driven to the county clerk’s office to submit ballots that only allowed votes for Democrats. The state Attorney General’s Office rejected Guardian’s pleas for an investigation.
A year after his election, Gilliam and city Councilman Jeffree Fauntleroy got into a fight, recorded on security video, with staff outside a nightclub in the city. Fauntleroy paid a fine and charges were dismissed against Gilliam, who settled a civil suit by the nightclub director. Settlement terms weren’t disclosed, of course.
FBI and IRS criminal investigators the following month searched Gilliam’s home, removing boxes of evidence and beginning the probe that ended last week in his conviction.
A few months after that, Gilliam attempted to muzzle city workers, sending a memo to all city directors requiring prior approval in writing from his office before speaking to the media about anything.
Gilliam’s plea deal to the federal charge removed him from office quickly but seems to have set him up for minimal punishment and a pass from further investigation. Theoretically he faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but the deal reduces the offense level so low that sentencing guidelines call for just 15-21 months in jail. Experts say he could get just probation or home confinement when he’s sentenced in January.
Having avoided a state investigation of his questionable election, the Democrat now seems poised to evade questions about money, possibly tens of thousands of dollars, raised at his inaugural gala. That was supposed to go to another city charity, Connecting the Dots. The charity’s president has refused to answer whether it ever received funds from the gala, and the state Attorney General’s Office has shown no sign of or voiced any interest in investigating what happened to the gala funds. It would only say that charities in New Jersey must register and report information about their fundraising under the Charities Registration Act. Connecting the Dots isn’t registered in the state Division of Consumer Affairs’ online database.
Gilliam’s 19 months in office have been a disaster, one that’s likely to add to doubts whether criminal politicians get treated the same as private offenders. His tenure on its own suggests that Atlantic City politics and government are hobbled by institutional weaknesses that invite crassly selfish individuals to seek their fortunes there. But he’s not alone — he’s the sixth corrupt Atlantic City mayor forced from office since the 1970s. That’s irrefutable proof that something’s rotten in the city, something even the state may be challenged to clean up during its extended control.
There’s one sign that Gilliam may have been the last straw for civic-minded city residents. This year some have formed Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, which wants to change city government to a council-manager style to promote efficiency and reduce costs, corruption and nepotism. A month before Gilliam’s conviction and ouster, the group said it already had many more than the 2,472 verified signatures to give city voters that choice.
Whatever it takes, residents and officials of the city, Atlantic County and the state must work together to change the culture and practices of Atlantic City government. State and local efforts to reinvent the resort and realize its obvious potential as a thriving tourism destination will be crippled as long as city leaders put their own interests ahead of the greater good.