Georgia lawmaker faces new scrutiny over vow to reject 'special interest' money

The following story was written by Leighton Rowell, a University of Georgia student part of The Georgia News Lab, which trains students in investigative journalism and partners with the AJC and WSB-TV to showcase their work.

In the month before the start of the 2016 Legislative session, newly elected state Rep. Sheri Smallwood Gilligan, R-Cumming, accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from 10 powerful interest groups, despite a campaign pledge to reject donations from “special interests.”

The contributions, made in December and January, came from industry groups such as the Georgia Beverage Association (BEVPAC), the Georgia Manufacturers PAC, the Georgia Oilmen’s Association, the Georgia Mining Association, the Georgia Restaurant Association and the Georgia Health Care Association.

Additional donations came from AT&T, the Georgia Optometric Association, the Committee of Automobile Retail Dealers (CARD) of Georgia and conservative lobbying group the American Federation for Children (AFC).

The contributions, totaling $2,825, amount to roughly 20 percent of the donations Gilligan has received since her July election to the State House.

The December and January donations are in addition to contributions Gilligan received prior to her election from the AFC and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), another powerful, conservative lobbying group.

Gilligan did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

As Political Insider reported in December, while campaigning for office Gilligan criticized the role special interest groups play in politics and said she would not take money from them.

“I am not accepting donations from any special interest or corporations because when I cast my first vote, I do not want to owe anyone anything except the voters who sent me to represent them,” Gilligan told the Forsyth Herald in June.

Campaign disclosure reports show that in July Gilligan received contributions from AFC  and from NFIB , which lobby on behalf of school choice and small business. Those donations, each for $500, made up about 3 percent of the contributions Gilligan received before she was elected.

Asked by the AJC in December about the AFC and NFIB donations, Gilligan said the groups shared her positions on education and business.

“I did not see it as special interests,” she said. “Maybe I was wrong but that’s the way I looked at it.”

Gilligan said voters also knew her positions on school choice and promoting business.

“I had not even thought about it as a potential issue,” Gilligan said. “The people who elected me here in Forsyth County know where I stand on all of these issues.”

Unlike the positions of AFC and NFIB, the interests of the groups from which Gilligan received the December and January contributions are not ones on which she had staked out positions before the session began.

The December contributions from BEVPAC, the Georgia Manufacturers PAC and the Oilmen’s Association were for $250, $200 and $300 respectively.

In January, the Georgia Health Care Association and AT&T contributed $500 each, while the Georgia Restaurant Association, CARD of Georgia and AFC each contributed $250. Gilligan received $200 from the Georgia Mining Association and $125 from the Georgia Optometric Association.

William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said Gilligan should make clear to voters what she meant when she said she would not take special interest money.

“If you’re promising voters that you’re not going to take special interest group money and you do, even though they agree with you, then you’re still violating your campaign promise,” Perry said.  “Even if she agrees with the group 100 percent, they are still a special interest group.”

In the end, Perry said, it comes down to voter trust.

“Bottom line,” he said, “you said you’re not accepting special interest money, and you did, so can we trust you?”

Leighton Rowell, a senior at the University of Georgia, is a student in the Georgia News Lab, a collaboration among Georgia’s leading journalism programs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. This story, along with an earlier one in December resulted from an analysis of Rep. Gilligan’s campaign records that Rowell conducted as part of a News Lab investigation.

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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.