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

The ‘Deportation Bus’ contender was sentenced to probation

Former state Sen. Michael Williams, who waged a controversial campaign for governor last year, has pleaded guilty to making a false report that computer servers were stolen from his campaign office shortly before his last-place primary finish.

The Forsyth County Republican was sentenced last week to four years of probation, 120 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine under the First Offender Act. The court records were sealed as a condition of the plea agreement.

The senator's attorney, A.J. Richman, declined to comment Wednesday. Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh confirmed the guilty plea but did not comment further. 

It was an abrupt turnabout for the Republican. Williams’ former campaign manager, Seth Weathers, had called the indictment a “political witch hunt” and mocked local prosecutors for bringing charges.

"Like they say," Weathers remarked then, "a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich."

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.

Weathers said then that Williams owns a cryptocurrency business and that the building he leases 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?”

Off the rails

Williams came in fifth place out of five candidates in the May Republican primary for governor. He based his campaign on loyalty to Donald Trump and a series of ill-fated publicity stunts, including a "deportation bus."

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 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 universally 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.

Even after the charges, Williams remained a sitting member of the state Senate until his term expired in early January. He was succeeded on Jan. 14 by Republican Greg Dolezal.