FRANK GILLIAM, Atlantic City’s mayor, solicited donations to a non-profit youth basketball club he co-founded. He promised the money would go to helping underprivileged children. Instead he defrauded contributors of $87,000, which he spent on designer clothes, expensive meals and trips. He pled guilty in a federal court on October 3rd to fraud and resigned from office hours later. His disgrace barely registered among the city’s residents. “Oh, we have corrupt politicians,” said Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, of the city’s mindset. “It must be Tuesday.”
Mr Gilliam is the sixth mayor since the 1970s to leave office in disgrace. Four of the past nine mayors have been arrested for graft. In 2007 a third of the nine-member City Council pled guilty to receiving bribes. This follows more than a century of political bosses, many of them corrupt, associating with mobsters, shaking down constituents and businesses as well as controlling everything, including who gets a job.
When elected in 2017 Mr Gilliam was dogged by allegations of campaign-finance fraud. A judge dismissed that complaint in 2018. In November he was involved in a fist-fight outside a nightclub at the Golden Nugget casino. The state declined to press charges. In December the FBI and the IRS raided his home. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mr Gilliam’s downfall was that it resulted from plain old theft.
Right from Atlantic City’s beginnings “corruption was organic,” says Nelson Johnson, a former judge and author of “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City”, which inspired an HBO series of the same name. The city is in a lovely spot on New Jersey’s shore where the Lenni-Lenape tribe spent the summer months for centuries. Originally conceived by a local doctor to be a health resort, the island flourished on the promise of a “naughty good time at an affordable price,” says Mr Johnson.
Louis “the Commodore” Kuehnle, ran the city from 1890 to 1910. Under his watch brothels, gambling dens and speakeasies operated openly. The only time the police intervened was when someone was late with a payment. He eventually went to jail for election fraud. His successor Enoch “Nucky” Johnson ran the city and everything else. After three decades he was dethroned for tax evasion.
Atlantic City’s fortunes declined after the second world war, as widespread car ownership opened up other possibilities. Two mayors were arrested for extortion in the early 1970s. Some of the city’s glamour came back after gambling was legalised in 1976, bringing in millions of fast dollars. “There was a mismatch between the money in the city and the size of the city itself (the population is 38,000),” says Bryant Simon, author of “Boardwalk of Dreams.”
Despite promises to keep gambling clean, politicians kept getting into trouble. Mayor Mike Matthews was arrested in 1983 for extortion. “Frankly, greed got the better of me,” he said during his sentencing. His successor, James Usry, the city’s first black mayor, took bribes and broke campaign-finance law. In 2007 Bob Levy resigned as mayor after disappearing for a spell. He later plead guilty to lying about his military record to inflate his veteran benefits.
Reformers have a hard time and do not tend to stay in office for long. By the time Don Guardian, a Republican and technocrat, became mayor in 2014, the city had lost its gambling monopoly. Casinos were closing and the city was running out of money. Despite his best efforts, the state took over the city. Mr Guardian lost his re-election bid to Mr Gilliam. And city politics settled back into old habits. ■