ATLANTA (CN) — A secretly recorded audio allegedly reveals Georgia’s lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate Casey Cagle acknowledging that he backed a controversial education bill he described as “bad public policy” to block an opponent in the Republican primary from receiving millions of dollars from a super PAC.
In a recording made by former gubernatorial rival Clay Tippins, Cagle allegedly says he supported a bill to raise the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships to $100 million to prevent former Republican state Senator Hunter Hill from getting a $3 million donation from the Walton Family Foundation.
All the politicians involved in the controversy are Republicans.
Hill finished in third place behind Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp in the Republican gubernatorial primary on May 22. Tippins finished fourth.
Two days after his defeat in the primary, Tippins met with Cagle at the lieutenant governor’s DeKalb County campaign headquarters, just east of Atlanta, to discuss whether he would endorse Cagle in the July 24 runoff.
Tippins sent the audio from the meeting to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta’s Channel 2 Action News.
During the conversation, which Tippins recorded using his iPhone concealed inside his coat pocket, the two Republicans also discussed House Bill 217, which raised the cap on tax credits from $58 million to $100 million.
“They wanted that $100 million SSO,” Cagle says in the recording, referring to the Student Scholarship Organizations tax credit program. “And, you know, I was the only guy standing in the way. Is it bad public policy? Between you and me, it is. I can tell you how it is a thousand different ways.”
Cagle, who presides over the Georgia Senate and influences which bills reach a vote in the chamber, initially sided with Senate leaders who pushed for a lower limit to the tax credit cap.
Tippins’ uncle, state Senator Lindsey Tippins, was one of the leaders who favored a lower limit. Sen. Lindsey Tippins was the head of the Senate Education Committee at the time of the vote.
The controversial measure allows donors to pledge money to organizations that provide scholarships to help children attend private schools in exchange for a tax credit for the donation amount.
Opponents of the program say it drains money away from Georgia public schools.
Cagle says in the recording that he had worked with Sen. Lindsey Tippins in previous years to “beat [the bill] to a pulp.”
When Cagle helped usher the bill through the Senate this year, Sen. Lindsey Tippins resigned in protest.
Governor Nathan Deal signed the bill into law on May 7.
During the meeting, Clay Tippins asked Cagle why he turned on his uncle and pushed the bill through.
“Exactly the reason I told Lindsey, that you need to listen to,” Cagle replied. “It ain’t about public policy. It’s about shit politics. There’s a group that was getting ready to put $3 million behind Hunter Hill.”
Cagle was referring to the Walton Family Foundation, established by Wal-Mart founders Sam and Helen Walton. The foundation has spent more than $400 million since 1997 to back charter school initiatives across the country.
Hunter Hill supports school choice and “equitable funding for charter schools” was part of his gubernatorial platform.
“I said, ‘Lindsey, you need to understand this bill is going to happen. It’s going to happen.’ Because it had to, to keep the money away from Hunter,” Cagle said in the recording. “I mean, I was playing defense. I’m being honest with you.
“[Hill] ran out of money in his own campaign. He had nothing to spend down the finish line, but had he had $3 million behind him, against me …” Cagle said, trailing off.
The Walton Education Coalition, the Walton Family Foundation’s political arm, told the Journal-Constitution it has not spent any money on the Georgia gubernatorial race.
Cagle defended himself in a statement Friday, saying that he “openly and honestly” answered Tippins’ questions.
“Every bill of import has political implications, but my record shows that throughout my career I’ve fought to give parents and children options so they can find what’s best for their family,” Cagle said.
“The bill wasn’t perfect — and I said that to Clay — but we reached a broad agreement while no side got everything it wanted,” he said.
Clay Tippins told the Journal-Constitution that he released the recording because the conversation made him “furious.” He said he wanted to give voters a “window into Casey Cagle’s character.”
“We all complain about these things happening, and no one thinks that anything can be done about it,” Tippins told the newspaper. “I just hit a point where I decided I’d do whatever it takes to bring transparency.”
Tippins has not endorsed Cagle or Kemp in the July 24 runoff.
The winner of the runoff will run against against Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams on Nov. 6.