Republican Georgia state Sen. Michael Williams participates in a debate in Atlanta on May 20, 2018, during his failed gubernatorial campaign.

‘Deportation bus’ candidate apologizes for running for Georgia governor

Republican Michael Williams, who finished last place in last year’s gubernatorial primary, said Tuesday he should never have sought higher office and blamed missed “red flags” for mistakes that led to a guilty plea on charges of filing a false report. 

The former state senator said he should not have allowed his “public persona to be so drastically changed to something it wasn’t” during a controversial campaign that included a series of ill-fated publicity stunts capped by a “deportation bus tour.” 

“I should have found a gubernatorial candidate whom I could support. I should have done what each of you did,” he wrote to supporters. “Instead, I allowed my pride, ego, and bad advice, to persuade me that I had a solid chance in the governor’s race.”

>>More: 'Deportation bus' candidate's rocky ride began long before criminal charges

Williams pleaded guilty in May to making a false report that computer servers were stolen from his campaign office shortly before the primary. He was sentenced to four years of probation, 120 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine under the First Offender Act. The court records were sealed as a condition of the plea agreement. 

Williams said his first mistake was taking bad advice to enter the race before the state GOP convention in 2015 before he achieved higher name recognition, raised significant cash or built a political network. 

His roll-out included a widely-mocked allegation that senior Republican leaders offered him a coveted committee post not to run. 

“In going against my gut, lowering my standards and allowing rationalization to creep in, I set the tone for the rest of my campaign,” he said. 

The email did not name his chief strategist, Seth Weathers, who helped devise the publicity stunts. But Williams said his campaign “became solely about doing whatever needed to be done in order to create headlines to build name ID.” 

“What does this have to do with the matter at hand?”he wrote. “If I stuck to my standards, followed my gut and not announced until the three prerequisites were met or withdrawn my candidacy when any of the other red flags occurred, the events that transpired that night in May of 2018, never would have happened.”

He asserted that he didn’t violate the law, commit insurance fraud or steal his own computer servers. But he wrote that he accepted the plea deal because it “was in the best interest of our family to close the door on this chapter of our life.” 

>>More: Ex-GOP candidate for Georgia governor pleads guilty to fraud charges

“In a very short period of time, this will be completely erased from my record. It will be as if it never happened,” he said. “And yes, I will still be able to vote for President Trump in 2020 and Governor Brian Kemp in 2022.

'Crazy shenanigans’

The charges issued in December by Hall County authorities relate to a May 2018 incident where Williams reported that his Gainesville office was burglarized. At the time, Weathers said $300,000 worth of computers servers were taken from the building. 

Williams was charged with lying to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent when he said he was at home in Forsyth County, not in the Gainesville area at the time of the purported burglary. The indictment also accuses him of making a false insurance claim related to the servers.

In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story published a day after the alleged theft, Weathers said the servers were being used to mine cryptocurrency for a business that Williams owned and that the building he leased for the servers is also used to house his campaign office. He said then that the servers were not campaign property.

Asked at the time by CBS 46 if the alleged theft was politically motivated, Weathers mused: “With all the crazy shenanigans that go on in politics, who knows?”

In this May 20, 2018 photo Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams participates in a debate in Atlanta. Williams, the former Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia who campaigned in a “deportation bus”, has turned himself into county jail, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018 after being indicted on charges including insurance fraud. (AP Photo/John Amis)

FILE - In this May 16, 2018 file photo a Georgia gubernatorial candidate touring the state in a "deportation bus" is greeted with protests by immigrants and other residents in Clarkston, Ga. Michael Williams, the former Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, has turned himself into county jail, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018 after being indicted on charges including insurance fraud. (AP Photo/Benjamin Nadler)

Photo: Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

‘Strategy mistakes’

First elected to the state Senate in 2014, Williams struggled to gain clout in a chamber that emphasizes longevity and loyalty. Many saw him as an embarrassment who made promises he couldn’t follow through on.

But President Donald Trump’s ascendance helped him gain currency among a faction of voters. He trekked to Utah days before the 2016 vote to help rally fellow Mormons to Trump’s side, and he stumped across Georgia to back the New York businessman.

When Trump won an upset victory over Hillary Clinton, Williams soon decided to run for governor by trying to position himself as his biggest champion - and planning one outlandish move after another to attract attention. 

He raffled off a deadly bump stock device after it was used in a mass shooting. He enlisted a TV reality figure to promote his call for increased police pay. He led a protest against a teacher who told a student to leave her classroom because he was wearing a T-shirt supporting Trump.

The stunts helped Williams attract some national headlines but little traction. He was ignored by his GOP rivals. At some debates, his opponents wouldn’t even respond to Williams’ taunts.

By the time Williams launched a “deportation bus tour” with a gray-painted vehicle emblazoned with a sign to “fill this bus with illegals,” Williams had become a full-fledged sideshow. 

And then the bus broke down on the side of a highway between stops in north Georgia, leading to even more jeers.

In the letter Tuesday, Williams faulted “campaign strategy mistakes” for the disastrous outcome and urged his supporters to “keep fighting” for shared conservative beliefs. 

“This is my greatest regret,” he wrote. “My campaign prevented you from supporting someone else who had a much better chance of winning.” 

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.