Representatives of the Walmart company heirs deny any involvement in the Georgia governor's race after a candidate was secretly recorded saying he backed a school choice law because campaign money from the family's non-profit foundation was at stake.
Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle admits making the remarks that surfaced in the past week. His campaign issued a statement Friday calling it "old news" that stemmed from a "purely political conversation" Cagle had in his campaign office. Cagle is heard saying he supported a bill in the recent legislative session expanding tax credit vouchers for private schools because millions of dollars in Walton foundation money were at stake in the gubernatorial race.
"The words that Casey used in that secret recording do not reflect his feelings about the legislation that passed. He was a strong supporter and led to pass it," said Scott Binkley, his campaign manager.
Cagle faces Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp in a July 24 runoff vote for the Republican nomination for governor. Both Republican and Democrat officials in the state who support Cagle's rivals have called for an investigation. State campaign finance reports show Cagle hasn't received money from Walton family members for his gubernatorial campaign.
The Walton family — through personal campaign contributions, their non-profit private foundation and a political affiliate group — are leading supporters of the charter school movement in America. Charter schools are run privately but get public dollars to educate students whose families choose to enroll them there instead of traditional neighborhood schools. The Waltons are also prominent supporters of giving scholarship vouchers funded by tax credits to students going to private schools.
The foundation is a private non-profit that is legally forbidden from wading into partisan politics because it does its work using tax-exempted dollars. Foundation spokeswoman Daphne Moore said in a statement: "As is the case with any other private foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, by law, cannot and does not engage in political activity."
The Waltons' political affiliate group denied any interest in the race.
"Any speculation about Walton investments in the Georgia governor's race is unfounded," said Joe Williams, director of the Walton Education Coalition that vets and advises Walton members on political candidates and ballot issues across the country.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV reported last week on the audio clip, which was secretly recorded May 24 and leaked by Clay Tippins, a failed candidate in the governor's race. Cagle is heard explaining that the lieutenant governor engaged in political maneuvering for a "bad public policy" bill for tax credit scholarships program. Cagle said he was "playing defense" because he claimed that the Walton foundation was preparing to give $3 million in campaign contributions to another rival, Hunter Hill.
The newspaper also reported another allegation this week that Cagle was working with Walton in mind when he backed another law that gives more money to charter schools. Clay Tippins' uncle, state Senator Lindsey Tippins was a Cagle ally who recently resigned from leading the senate's education committee over the law. The senator told the newspaper that the two had a tense conversation toward the end of the legislative session, when Cagle declared that he would get money from the foundation if the bill passed.
The Walton representatives strongly denied any association with Cagle in these cases and didn't make any Walton family members available for comment.
The Waltons have long been involved in the state's charter school scene from multiple angles.
The family gave money to a ballot initiative that expanded charters in the state, which passed in 2012.
Williams said the Waltons have also given to the American Federation for Children, which has supported individual candidates in Georgia. The federation was previously led by now U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a staunch school choice advocate.
The Walton foundation names Atlanta Public Schools as one of its targeted school districts for charter school support.
And the foundation is also the largest nonprofit funder of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, according to the Foundation Center's grants database.
Georgia Charter Schools Association said in a statement that it isn't a part of the issue and doesn't comment on, or get involved in, electoral politics.
The association this year issued statements praising Cagle, among others, for the charter expansion law now in question. Frank Morris, the charter school association's board chairman, also gave Cagle a $500 campaign contribution last year.
Associated Press reporter Benjamin Nadler contributed to this report from Atlanta.