A Republican state senator said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle demanded the passage of a contentious charter school measure because he said it would help him secure millions of dollars in outside help for his campaign for governor.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he resigned as chairman of the Senate Education Committee after Cagle insisted on the measure over his objections.
The interview echoed the secret recording made by his nephew, Clay Tippins, who finished fourth in the GOP’s May gubernatorial primary.
In the audio, Cagle told his former adversary that he supported “bad public policy” solely to thwart the Walton Family Foundation from supporting former state Sen. Hunter Hill, who was also in the race.
But the state senator said Cagle went a step further in his private conversations. He said Cagle directly tied the passage of legislation that boosted funding for state charter schools to receiving generous financial support from the Walton Family Foundation.
“He said, ‘I’ve got to do something for charter schools,’ ” said Tippins, describing a conversation with Cagle in the legislative session’s closing days. “He said, ‘The Walton Family Foundation is fixing to put $2 million in Hunter Hill’s campaign. And he said, ‘If this bill passes, I’ll get it in mine.’ ”
Tippins added: “It was at that point I told him I’d rather be shot doing what was right than be lauded for doing what I believed to be wrong. I said, ‘If you’ve got to have this bill, you’re going to do it without me.’ ”
Cagle has said he was just repeating “rumor and innuendo” discussing the possible investment from the foundation, an influential force in the school-choice movement. He faces Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who has said Cagle may have crossed ethical and legal lines with his comments in the recording, in the July 24 runoff.
“Some are calling for a criminal investigation of Casey Cagle,” Kemp said Tuesday in a statement. “Clearly, he has a lot of explaining to do.”
In a statement Tuesday, Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley did not deny Cagle made those remarks. But he said Tippins “stonewalled” efforts to expand education options and that Cagle “tired of getting blamed for the lack of progress” on boosting charter school funding.
“This year, Casey got it done and Senator Tippins was the only Republican who voted no,” said Binkley, who added: “That’s progress that got done over the objections of the education chairman because Casey Cagle delivered on his principles and his promises.”
Joe Williams of the Walton Education Coalition, the family foundation’s political arm, said the group has not spent any money in the primary and that “any speculation about our potential involvement in the governor’s race is unfounded.”
While Walton family officials said they weren’t involved in the race, they have put big money into school politics in Georgia. The family funneled $600,000 to an “independent committee” in 2012 in support of a proposed constitutional amendment that set up another pathway to create charter schools.
A member of the family gave the political action committee for the Georgia chapter of the American Federation for Children, a leading national advocate of charter and private schools, $55,000 last fall.
Walton family members put at least $400,000 into another committee supporting Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2016 proposed amendment allowing the state to take over failing schools. That measure failed after teacher groups poured big money into the opposition.
In all, family members and their foundations have put about $1.2 million into various Georgia campaigns since 2012, mostly involving school issues rather than candidates.
The secretly recorded conversation focused on Cagle’s demand for legislation that raises the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships even though he said it was bad in “a thousand different ways.”
But the state senator said he felt equally betrayed by Cagle’s insistence on another measure, House Bill 787, that increased the per-pupil student allotment for state-sanctioned charter schools by about $17 million a year.
Tippins said he opposed the measure in part because it gives some charter schools a higher rate of funding per student than dozens of public school systems.
Charter schools are publicly funded but are free of many state and local regulations.
As Cagle stepped up his demand for the measure, Tippins threatened to resign as head of the chamber’s Education Committee.
The standoff seemed to thaw in one late March meeting, Tippins said, when Cagle told him to draft a bill he was “comfortable with” and that he would give it his blessing.
“When he told me that, to fix the bill the way I wanted it — when I left his office I felt like a thousand-pound weight had been taken off of me,” said Tippins, dabbing his eyes with a napkin. “I thought, ‘This is the guy I’ve known.’ ”
His committee soon passed a version of the legislation that gave a more limited financial boost to charter schools. Within days, though, he learned of a new version of the legislation making the rounds.
It passed on the second-to-last day of the legislative session. Tippins was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against it.
“If he had told me what he was going to do, I would have said, ‘I resign,’ ” said Tippins, who soon did just that. “What I haven’t been able to say until now was, ‘He told me he’d go with however I fixed it.’ ”
In the recording, Cagle calls Tippins a “man of principle” and says he told the senator: “I’m not going to let you resign because you’re too good a friend. And I don’t want this thing blowing up on you and I on this.”
He also says he made Tippins his education chairman because that was the issue he was “most passionate about” and “Lindsey is the guy I can trust to get it done.”
Tippins endorsed Cagle late last year and stuck with him even after his nephew got in the race. But he said he withdrew his support for his longtime friend because he was so hurt by his insistence on the measure.
“It was like the death of a real close friend,” he said. “It changed the dynamic so much.”
The story so far
Thursday: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News report that Clay Tippins secretly taped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, capturing him admitting that he supported “bad public policy” in order to prevent former state Sen. Hunter Hill from receiving outside support from an influential foundation.
Friday: Cagle tries to limit the fallout of the recording, calling it a “political exchange,” as his political opponents seized on the audio to cast him as an opportunist who crossed legal and ethical lines.
Now: State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, Clay Tippins’ uncle who had worked closely with Cagle, tells the AJC that the lieutenant governor tied passage of the legislation that boosted funding for state charter schools to receiving substantial funding from the same foundation.