The fallout reached a new level Thursday over Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s admission he pushed legislation he described as bad a “thousand different ways” just to undercut another candidate’s fundraising opportunities, as politicians from both parties urged prosecutors to investigate whether the Republican engaged in a “pay-to-play” scheme.
A pair of Republican state legislators on Thursday asked the U.S. attorney to probe whether the GOP candidate for governor offered to trade legislative action for campaign funding. And the Democratic nominee for attorney general said he would order an investigation into potential bribery charges if he were the state’s top prosecutor.
A formal investigation is highly unlikely weeks away from the July 24 runoff against Secretary of State Brian Kemp, and legal analysts say there’s little evidence of criminal wrongdoing. But the bipartisan efforts highlight the mounting pressure Cagle faces after reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News jolted the race.
The first was a secret recording from former rival Clay Tippins, who taped Cagle saying he supported “bad public policy” to expand a private school tax credit to prevent another opponent from receiving support from the Walton Family Foundation.
The second involved Tippins’ uncle, a GOP state senator and onetime Cagle ally, who said the lieutenant governor told him he had to pass a bill to boost charter school funding so Cagle could get $2 million in funding from the group.
The foundation’s political arm has said speculation about its involvement in the race is “unfounded.” And Cagle has said his remarks were a “political exchange” and labeled his talk of outside support purely “rumor and innuendo.”
Asked in an interview whether he had any concerns he broke the law, Cagle said “none whatsoever.”
‘Lie with a straight face’
Supporters of Kemp are hoping to drive a different message over the next six weeks.
A letter by state Sen. Bill Heath and state Rep. Susan Holmes, both Kemp backers, asked local and federal prosecutors to launch an investigation into “compelling evidence of a direct quid pro quo offered by Cagle to trade legislative action for campaign funding.”
“These questions need to be asked by law enforcement,” the two wrote, “because Cagle has demonstrated repeatedly, notably on the audio recording provided by Clay Tippins, that he will lie with a straight face to the media and voters.”
Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley called the letter the product of “irrelevant cranks” manipulated by Kemp’s campaign.
“Where’s the quid pro quo? Casey didn’t get any money from these groups mentioned,” Binkley said. “Kemp should apologize to these people for embarrassing them in public.”
Democrats, too, are ratcheting up the pressure. The Democratic Party of Georgia has held daily press conferences featuring teachers and parents assailing Cagle and calling for prosecutors to delve into the case. On Thursday, a group of protesters waving signs that accused Cagle of “selling out” staged a protest outside his DeKalb County campaign headquarters.
And Charlie Bailey, the party’s nominee for attorney general, said he would investigate whether Cagle violated state bribery laws if he were elected.
“We have some evidence that he took an official action as the second-highest-ranked official in Georgia and that it was for a political donor,” Bailey said. “We don’t know all the facts, but there’s certainly enough smoke where you’d be bound to investigate.”
Proof could be difficult
Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican who was appointed to the post in 2016, indicated through a campaign spokesman that he’s unlikely to order a state probe in the middle of a runoff election.
“Judges, district attorneys and attorneys general have a higher standard than politicians,” said Heath Garrett, Carr’s campaign strategist. “Announcing and threatening investigations for political purposes without the facts is not only unethical but also dangerous to democracy.”
Several legal analysts told the AJC that while Cagle may have crossed an ethical line, it will be difficult to prove he violated a legal one. But ex-U.S. Attorney Bob Barr, a Kemp backer, said the “elements of a potential crime are there.”
“There definitely is enough information out there to warrant a much closer look by the authorities at both the federal and the state level,” said Barr, who once represented a northwest Atlanta district in Congress.
Still, others say Cagle’s true crime may have been speaking so openly with Tippins, who days after he came in fourth in the GOP primary recorded his meeting with the lieutenant governor.
“I’ve had plenty of private closed-door political discussions, and the fact Casey Cagle had one doesn’t change my support for him to be my governor,” said former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Cagle backer. “What I have changed my mind on is the character of the fourth-place finisher.”