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How New Jersey power brokers bankrolled the election of Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam

The volatile Gilliam is now under FBI and IRS scrutiny. Should power brokers have known better?

Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam leaves his home after members of the FBI and Internal Revenue Service searched his home and left with boxes and other items earlier this month.
Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam leaves his home after members of the FBI and Internal Revenue Service searched his home and left with boxes and other items earlier this month.Read moreVERNON OGRODNEK (custom credit)

ATLANTIC CITY — The election of Frank M. Gilliam Jr. as mayor of Atlantic City probably hasn’t worked out the way a lot of powerful people hoped.

It was, in tried and true Atlantic City fashion, a bad bet.

Gilliam’s allies were distancing themselves before the 2017 election was officially certified. Before long, local Democrats were airing grievances about misdirected checks under the warm, Tiffany lamp glare of the city’s Irish Pub, a place on storied St. James Place whose walls have surely heard similar talk before. There was a pricey inaugural gala that filled 46 tables at Resorts to benefit the mayor’s own nonprofit, Connecting the Dots.

There was a fist fight outside a casino, then a raid on his home by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service, never a good sign. Federal agents, two sources said, had to borrow a cash counting machine from the city’s police department, also never a good sign. Dots are no doubt being connected.

But how did this mercurial councilman who wanted to be a point guard for the city, a man whose volatile temper was known, whose work history was vague, whose personal finances resulted in a bankruptcy declaration, whose claim of a master’s degree in social work from the University of San Francisco was later debunked by the New York Times, whose cozying up to developers was well known, get elected in the first place?

‘Our Atlantic City’

How did Frank Gilliam raise more than $261,000 for his campaign and get the benefit of a Super PAC, Our Atlantic City, that raised another $229,000 and ultimately paid Craig Callaway, Atlantic City’s influential vote-by-mail wrangler, $80,180 on his and other Democrats' behalf?

How was it that New Jersey’s power brokers — top Democrats, unions, online gaming companies, moribund Boardwalk landholders, the company that owns the Claridge and vacant Atlantic Club, and, crucially, the Callaways — rallied around this candidate for a position that, while still paying a $103,000 annual salary, the state had through its takeover rendered essentially powerless?

“I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Callaway said in a phone interview, adding he was prevailed upon to support Gilliam after working to elect former Mayor Don Guardian in 2013. A former council president who served time in federal prison on bribery charges, Callaway said he tried to advise Gilliam on how to avoid trouble, even telling him not to touch a pile of cash at a fund-raiser by Bangladeshi business owners, a group that also previously supported Guardian but said they failed to get enough City Hall jobs in return.

“It was a money grab literally and figuratively," Callaway said. “Absolutely I regret it. I feel some responsibility."

With Gov. Murphy vowing to end the takeover — a position Murphy immediately reversed, saying the state would keep control the full five years authorized by the 2016 legislation — the influencers may have assumed that power would flow back into City Hall.

An examination of election documents filed with both the Federal Election Commission and the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission show a familiar pattern: The usual suspects of the South Jersey power base rallied behind Gilliam, in some cases abandoning previous support for the incumbent Guardian, a rare Republican Atlantic City mayor who famously battled both Republican Gov. Chris Christie and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, at the time the state’s top Democratic official, over the Atlantic City takeover.

“A lot of unions did support him,” said Roy Foster, an influential official at IBEW Local 351 who chairs the Atlantic County Improvement Authority and the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

Local 351 donated $25,000 to Our Atlantic City and $7,200 to Gilliam for Mayor in both the primary and general elections. The Iron Workers Local 399, Sweeney’s old union, gave Gilliam $8,200 in each election cycle, as did the bricklayers.

“We never saw this coming,” Foster added. “Nobody saw this coming.”

Left at the dance

In the 2013 general election, IBEW Local 351 and four other Electrical Workers locals contributed a total of $41,000 — to Guardian, the Republican who upset Mayor Lorenzo Langford. Only one local, based in Parsippanny, not far from where Guardian grew up, donated to Guardian four years later.

In this case, with Trenton upset with Guardian and his ally in the fight, City Council President Marty Small Sr., strings got pulled from power centers, including Camden County-based power broker George Norcross III and Sweeney, who both wield influence over the electrical and iron workers unions and had long advanced agendas in Atlantic City.

Though many locals opposed the takeover and stood alongside Guardian and Small at protests and rides to Trenton, the two would never again have support from the Sweeney-Norcross sphere of influence. Even the Cumberland County Democratic Party, a Norcross stronghold, ponied up $8,200 for Gilliam in the primary.

As one local put it: “When Camden County gets mad at somebody, we’re all mad at somebody.”

A spokesperson for Sweeney declined comment on a range of questions related to the union support of Gilliam, and Sweeney’s influence in Gilliam’s election.

A spokesperson for Norcross did not answer an email seeking comment on similar topics.

Gilliam was a willing conduit of outside interests, having shepherded a later-rescinded designation of politically connected builders Joe Jingoli and Jack Morris as redevelopers of the South Inlet. Jingoli later built Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus, and he and Morris partnered to turn the former Trump Taj Mahal into Hard Rock.

Never mind the mayor’s lack of power. “It was based on the idea [that] once the takeover had ended, business as usual would continue,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

Small, who had been working hand in hand with Guardian to fight the takeover, sought by Sweeney and then-Gov. Christie, lost in the primary election on the strength of the Callaway operation.

The incumbent Guardian, whose bow ties, bicycle riding, and unabashed battles with Christie and Sweeney made him a popular man around town, was left at the dance.

‘Another heyday’

For these power brokers, Atlantic City remained a temptation. Never mind its brush with bankruptcy, high poverty rate, and the gaming industry’s contraction.

“A lot of the entities are still betting on the possibility that Atlantic City still has another heyday left in it, that there’s still money to be made," Harrison said.

Amaya and TSG Limited, two companies under the Poker Stars brand, which runs online gaming at Resorts, donated a total of $50,000 to Our Atlantic City. TSG general counsel Nick Menas is an influential attorney who served on Gilliam’s transition team. The company declined comment.

The Schiff brothers opened their wallets. These inscrutable longtime owners of Central Pier and other city holdings donated $25,000 to Our Atlantic City. They were last seen eating lunch at Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, possibly scouting out ideas for a beer garden they reportedly are planning of their own.

Our Atlantic City founder Tim Mancuso, of Ventnor, a nephew of a former city councilman, declined comment. He received $26,550 in salary, federal filings report.

Gilliam’s biggest direct donor was the Atlantic County Democratic Committee, which donated $37,500. Election records list another $10,000 — but that check was the one made out to the Atlantic City Democratic Committee that Gilliam says he endorsed and deposited by mistake and later returned.

Committee chair Michael Suleiman, who says he has been interviewed by the FBI about the check, a topic also exhaustively aired in public, says he took his cues from the city committee.

Councilman George Tibbitt says the FBI asked him about checks made out to his campaign that he says were also found deposited in Gilliam’s account.

He and Callaway say they questioned their support almost immediately. “Right after the election, the real Frank Gilliam emerged,” Callaway said. “That’s when everyone ran away.”

The impact on Atlantic City is debatable. At best, it’s an unwelcome regression into a familiar history of mayoral misconduct — Michael Matthews, James Usry, Robert Levy — just as the city is attracting developers from Philadelphia and Asbury Park.

“We still haven’t picked the right person,” Tibbitt said.