Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle tried Friday to limit the fallout of a secret recording that acknowledged he supported what he called “bad public policy” to hurt another rival for governor, as his political opponents seized on the audio to cast him as an opportunist who crossed legal and ethical lines.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, Cagle called his remarks panning a school tax credit measure a purely “political exchange.”
“In terms of the importance of doing something good for Georgia, we did. And I’m proud of what we accomplished,” he said. “Just like President Trump didn’t get everything he wanted on the budget deal or the tax cut, it was certainly for the greater good. My record speaks for itself.”
Cagle was trying to downplay the impact of the recording obtained by the AJC and Channel 2 in which he repeatedly said he backed a controversial education measure he called bad “a thousand different ways” solely to block a super PAC from pouring $3 million into former state Sen. Hunter Hill’s campaign.
“When I made the statement that this was bad legislation, I will tell you there were things that I did not like. And I don’t back away from that,” Cagle said. “In the context of the way it was framed, I would probably have said things a little differently. But you always have to look at whether the greater good is being accomplished. And in this instance it was.”
His rivals pounced on the tape, surreptitiously recorded by former candidate Clay Tippins. Hill, who finished third in the GOP primary, said the recording proves that “career politicians are bought and paid for by special interests.” Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, said it shows Republicans are “only out for themselves and their friends.”
And Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who faces Cagle in the July 24 Republican runoff, said the recording reveals “everything that’s wrong with politics.”
“Even worse,” he added, “it raises serious ethical and legal questions that must be answered immediately.”
Asked about whether he was concerned about legal fallout, Cagle said there were “none whatsoever.”
“The policy is the right policy. Is it perfect? Maybe it’s not as perfect as we would like. It’s certainly good policy,” Cagle said. “I did not receive any money centered around any of this. And I stand on my record, and I stand on the things that I’ve done as lieutenant governor.”
Some legal analysts agreed. Page Pate, a veteran criminal defense attorney, said Cagle may have crossed a “political line — but there’s nothing illegal about it that I see.” And Jeff Brickman, a former federal prosecutor, said he doesn’t imagine there will be a criminal investigation.
“Is it disturbing? Absolutely,” said Brickman, a former DeKalb County district attorney. “How so? Well, in Cagle’s own words — ‘in a thousand ways.’”
Others, however, say Cagle could be in legal hot water if he pushed a public policy in exchange for assurances an outside group wouldn’t help a rival. Former U.S Rep. Bob Barr, a former U.S. attorney and Kemp supporter, said Cagle’s comments should raise a “red flag.”
“I’m not saying the state or feds should rush out and begin a case,” he said, “but there seems to be sufficient evidence that laws may have been broken.”
‘Rumor and innuendo’
The interview came a day after the release of the recording jolted the race for governor. Tippins taped the conversation using an iPhone hidden in his coat pocket during a face-to-face meeting with Cagle shortly after the GOP primary. The former Navy SEAL came in fourth place in the May 22 race, and Cagle was seeking his endorsement.
Their conversation involved legislation that raised the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships to $100 million. Cagle boasted in the recording about his role in blocking the expansion in past years, but he said a group he identified as the Walton Family Foundation insisted on the increase this year.
The tax credits have helped thousands of children attend private schools by allowing donors to pledge money to an organization that provides scholarships and then receive a tax credit in that amount. The program is opposed by critics who say it drains money from the public school system.
The foundation’s political arm said it did not spend any money in the Georgia governor’s race and declined to comment on the recording. Cagle said Friday that he was never told directly that the foundation was prepared to help Hill’s campaign, saying he was hearing “rumor and innuendo.”
“When you come into an environment and someone is taping you, there are things that are said in private that come across in a wrong way,” Cagle said.
His campaign also tried to change the subject, in part thanks to an enormous financial advantage he and his allies can leverage to blanket the airwaves. He’s already aired two rounds of ads since the primary, and a pro-Cagle outside group bought $250,000 worth of TV time this week.
On Friday, he announced that former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes would campaign in Atlanta for him later this month. Forbes, the chief executive of Forbes Media, called him “absolutely the man to keep Georgia’s economy humming.”
Cagle’s allies, meanwhile, set about trying to cast Tippins as a sore loser. Jay Morgan, a lobbyist and former Georgia GOP executive director, described Tippins as a “furious” candidate who lashed out after a disappointing finish.
“His campaign was boring. He continues to be boring,” said Morgan, who spent almost $1,100 catering a Cagle campaign event last year. “He doesn’t get politics and it seems to be everybody else’s fault.”
Tippins acknowledged some would cast him as a sore loser, but he said he had to “take a stand” to expose what he described as corrupt politics under the Gold Dome.
“People can say whatever they want to. I’m crystal clear on what my motives are,” Tippins said. “Folks that admittedly pursue what they think is bad public policy for sheer short-term politics — that’s bad for everyone.”
Transcript of Cagle interview
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle sat down Friday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News for an exclusive interview about his remarks in a secretly recorded conversation released by a former rival in the race for governor.
The interview came a day after the AJC and Channel 2 reported that Cagle acknowledged he supported “bad public policy” — a controversial education measure — to prevent an opponent from getting millions of dollars in outside support.
Here are the highlights of the interview with Cagle. (The questions are edited for clarity, answers are direct quotes.)
Q: What happened?
Cagle: “He said to me, ‘I’d like to have a very open, candid, honest conversation – man-to-man, between just you and I.’ And that’s how it began. Obviously, I had no idea that it would become public. But it did. And this is the reality: Regardless of what took place, my position stands firm. And that is, I stand on the public policy issue and the decisions that we made. This session, we were able to do some great things for public education ...
“The important thing is to always be focused on what is in the greater good for our kids, and I wanted to do something special this session that advanced the cause of public education and opening up more options and choices for our kids ...
“During the political exchange that I had with Clay Tippins, it was just that: A political exchange. In terms of the importance of doing something good for Georgia, we did. And I’m proud of what we accomplished. Just like President Trump didn’t get everything he wanted on the budget deal or the tax cut, it was certainly for the greater good. My record speaks for itself ...
“When I made the statement that this was bad legislation, I will tell you there were things that I did not like. And I don’t back away from that. In the context of the way it was framed, I would probably have said things a little differently. But you always have to look at whether the greater good is being accomplished. And in this instance it was.”
Q: You said several times this was bad legislation.
Cagle: “This is the reality. This was a conversation about his uncle. And that was how he phrased that conversation, and within that context I was articulating the various reasons by which he was not happy with the legislation. And listen, I will be very firm in saying I want to see a scholarship approach to make sure we’re doing more for financially-challenged individuals. And we didn’t get as far as I wanted to get. So yes we have more to work out.”
Q: You tied this bill several times to an effort to prevent Hunter Hill from getting outside support.
Cagle: “The policy is the right policy. Is it perfect? Maybe it’s not as perfect as we would like. It’s certainly good policy. And the reality is I have not received any money whatsoever centered around any of this. And I stand on my record and the things that I’ve done as lieutenant governor.”
Q: How do you reconcile what you said?
Cagle: “Everybody recognizes when you come into an environment and someone is taping you that you’re not aware of, there are things that are said in private that come across sometimes in a wrong way. And that is not in the context of the overall point we were trying to make to him in a political context.”
Q: Tippins called it a “window” into your character. What’s your response?
Cagle: “He’s open to his opinion. Ultimately this is a decision the voters of Georgia get to make. And when someone comes into your house and begins asking you various questions you didn’t know they were taping – that’s a decision that each and every individual has to make.”
Q: Does it say anything about Casey Cagle’s character?
Cagle: “My character is pretty clear. I’m a person who continually does the right things for the conservative principles that I believe in. And this record of accomplishments that we’ve pushed through the Legislature this year reflects that.”
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say to Clay?
Cagle: “I don’t think there’s anything I need to say to Clay.”
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say about him?
Cagle: “I don’t think there’s anything I need to say about him. This contest is a contest about me, ... I am the only candidate who can win, and that’s exactly what I’m focusing on.”
Q: Why did you say this outside group was going to spend $3 million on Hunter Hill’s campaign? Did an outside group ever insist on raising the school tax credit cap to $100 million?
Cagle: “The Walton Foundation has stated for themselves they didn’t engage in the gubernatorial campaign. During the session there were a lot of ads being run against me, so it was a political contest that was occurring ... You never know what kind of third-party entities that could be out there or what level of funds they’re going to spend. That was information that had come to me. Whether it was true or not, remains to be seen.”
Q: But it worried you, politically, since you said you were “playing defense”?
Cagle: “In the context of the legislation itself, there was politics that entered into this. And the politics are real. It’s not just inclusive of any third party, it’s also dealing with the House. And the House was pushing really hard for the SSO bill along with the charter school expansion ...”
Q: Did you cross a legal line?
Cagle: “None whatsoever. I did exactly what I said I was going to do ... This year, I stated we would be in support of reaching a deal and a compromise to get that done.”
Q: Is there anything you said that you regret?
Cagle: “Well, certainly, in situations like this to say the bill was bad in a thousand different ways is really an overstatement. It would be better to have stated that the bill was not perfect. There were many ways in which we could have perfected the bill, but in a political process that becomes very challenging ...”
Q: Did an outside group ever threaten to support an opponent if the tax credit cap wasn’t expanded, like you said in the recording?
Cagle: “This was all rumor and innuendo that was placed out there. And obviously that’s where it stands.”