Atlantic City mayor pleads guilty to stealing, resigns

WAYNE PARRY
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Atlantic City Mayor

FILE - In an April 23, 2019 file photo, Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. speaks at the Atlantic City Implementation Plan. Gilliam Jr. has resigned, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019, after pleading guilty to defrauding a youth basketball club out of $87,000. (Craig Matthews/The Press of Atlantic City via AP, File)

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Atlantic City’s mayor pleaded guilty to stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball team and resigned from office Thursday, becoming the latest in a line of corrupt city officials so long that it spawned a hit HBO TV series.

Frank Gilliam Jr. appeared in federal court in Camden, where it emerged that half of the amount of money he took from the Atlantic City Starz was recovered from his home when FBI agents raided it last December. He was released after posting a $100,000 bond with the court.

By the close of the business day, the Democrat had resigned from office.

“It is with a heavy heart that I tender my resignation as the Mayor of the City of Atlantic City, effective immediately,” Gilliam wrote in a letter filed with the city clerk. “My sincere apologies to each constituent that voted for me and had high hopes in my tenure.”

The resignation came as New Jersey officials began working to remove him from office.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said his office had filed papers in state Superior Court seeking to have Gilliam ousted under the state’s Forfeiture of Public Office law. Gilliam, 49, also faced calls from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and other elected Democrats to resign.

City Council President Marty Small was expected to take over as acting mayor, city officials said.

At his court appearance, Gilliam told U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez he stole funds raised from basketball team donors in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, using the money for personal expenses from 2013 to 2018. He was elected mayor in 2017 after serving as a city councilman.

“When a scheme depletes (a) charity for children, it's unconscionable,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Gregory Ehrie. “But when the fraud is perpetrated by someone the public trusts, it damages the community's confidence in their public servants. This defendant betrayed the trust of his community and of people who wanted to improve the lives of children.”

Gilliam’s lawyer, Harry Rimm, stressed that Gilliam admitted to taking private money, not public funds. That sets him somewhat apart from a long line of his predecessors accused of corruption, dating back to the turn-of-the-century Atlantic City officials whose malfeasance was chronicled in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”

“Mr. Gilliam, who is a lifelong resident of Atlantic City, has admitted his wrongful conduct, is accepting responsibility for his actions and is genuinely remorseful," Rimm said in a statement issued after the court appearance.

U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said Gilliam solicited donations while a member of the City Council and then as mayor under the false pretense that they were for the youth basketball team or for school supplies for poor children.

In reality, the prosecutor said, Gilliam used the money for personal expenses including luxury clothing, expensive meals, and trips.

In a speech several hours after Gilliam’s guilty plea, Gov. Murphy called on the mayor to resign, calling his conduct “despicable.” The city remains under state supervision due to its chronic budgeting and other problems.

"Atlantic City is a strong and resilient community that is on the rise after years of stagnation," Murphy said. "This progress can only continue with leadership whose sole focus is on what he or she can do for the betterment of all residents of Atlantic City and not for themselves."

FBI agents carried off numerous cardboard boxes and computer equipment during a raid of the mayor’s home on Dec. 3, but they remained silent about why they were there and what they had taken away.

Gilliam could face 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 7. He also agreed to make restitution for the fraud.

The mayor left his home early Thursday clutching his passport, and declined comment to reporters other than to say, “Have a good day.” Surrendering a passport is commonly done when a defendant faces federal charges to prevent him or her from leaving the country.

As recently as 2007, four of the city’s last eight mayors had been arrested on corruption charges and one-third of the nine-member City Council was either in prison or under house arrest.

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Associated Press writer Michael Catalini in Trenton contributed to this story.

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