The Slatest

The FBI Probe That May Have Cost Andrew Gillum His Election No Longer Appears Interested in Andrew Gillum

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum attends a service to advocate for a vote recount at the New Mount Olive Baptist Church on November 11, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum attends a service to advocate for a vote recount at the New Mount Olive Baptist Church on November 11, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Joe Skipper/Getty Images

The FBI investigation that shadowed Andrew Gillum throughout the 2018 Florida governor’s race entered a new phase on Wednesday when prosecutors charged Tallahassee Commissioner Scott Maddox with fraud, bribery, extortion, and racketeering. A 44-count indictment alleges that Maddox and an associate, political consultant Janice Paige Carter-Smith, led a lucrative conspiracy to extort and bribe businesses. Both defendants pleaded not guilty.

While Wednesday’s revelations point to appalling corruption in Tallahassee’s City Hall, one name is conspicuously absent from the indictment: Gillum himself. It looks increasingly likely that the former Tallahassee mayor is not implicated in the FBI probe, as he insisted throughout the 2018 race. Instead, it appears that Gillum may have been the victim of a political hit job by a Republican lawyer who represented one of the players at the center of the investigation and is now working for the man who defeated Gillum in November.

Gillum’s connection to the FBI inquiry has always been indirect. It seems to spring from his friendship with a Tallahassee lobbyist named Adam Corey. In 2015, Corey befriended an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer named Mike Miller. Corey then introduced Gillum to Miller, and scheduled a meeting between the two men while he and Gillum were on vacation in Costa Rica. (Gillum says he paid his share of the trip’s costs; Corey says he did not.) Later, Corey, Miller, and Gillum visited New York City along with Gillum’s brother. Miller obtained Hamilton tickets for the group, though Gillum said his brother purchased them.

It is, no doubt, unwise for a mayor to accept lavish gifts from a lobbyist and a developer. It may also be unethical; the Florida Commission on Ethics is currently looking into Gillum’s trips to Costa Rica and New York City. But is it a federal crime? It certainly would be if Gillum had engaged in a quid-pro-quo, using the power of his office to benefit his benefactors.

Yet there is no evidence that he did. Miller did claim that he wanted the city to pass a measure that would grant him taxpayer money to develop land, and enlisted Corey to help him. But when city officials approved the plan, Gillum missed the vote. Again, there’s no indication that Corey or Miller pressured Gillum to aid their venture, or that he ever did.

That doesn’t mean Corey is off the hook. The lobbyist was a key target of FBI subpoenas issued in July, revolving around a restaurant that Corey developed with the help of taxpayer money. He has yet to be indicted, though prosecutors signaled on Tuesday that the probe isn’t complete.

Here’s where the election comes in. After Corey learned of the investigation—and Gillum severed their friendship—he hired Chris Kise as his attorney. Kise is a Republican operative who served as legal counselor to Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team. Scott later appointed Kise to the board of Enterprise Florida, which hands out tax incentives.

In 2018, two weeks before Election Day, Kise released hundreds of pages of records from the Florida Commission on Ethics’ inquiry. These disclosures rocked the race, drawing nationwide attention to Gillum’s questionable relationship with lobbyists. They led to speculation that the Costa Rica and New York City trips may be at the center of the FBI probe. The Tallahassee Democrat, which broke much of the FBI story, credited these bombshells as a major reason why Gillum narrowly lost the election.

Kise asserted that he divulged the records to clear his client’s name, asserting that “Corey is plain tired of being in the middle.” In December, however, Ron DeSantis—the Republican who defeated Gillum in the governor’s race—appointed Kise to his transition team. The move led Democrats to speculate that Kise released the documents in exchange for a future job with DeSantis. (There is no proof that the two colluded.)

Whatever his intention, Kise’s October surprise indisputably contributed to Gillum’s defeat and DeSantis’ victory. The documents he released from the Florida ethics inquiry contributed to the narrative that Gillum may have exchanged political favors for luxury travel and Hamilton tickets. But Gillum was not subpoenaed and had exactly one conversation with FBI agents, who allegedly told him that he wasn’t the focus of the probe. Corey, on the other hand, has received lengthy subpoenas regarding development projects with, at most, a tenuous connection to Gillum. And Wednesday’s indictment seems to confirm that Maddox and Carter-Smith—long known to be subjects of the investigation—are the FBI’s primary targets.

This story isn’t over yet: It’s still unknown how Corey is linked to Maddox and Carter-Smith, if he is at all. But the FBI investigation is moving further away from Gillum, who surely wishes Wednesday’s indictments had dropped before Election Day. The former mayor made himself vulnerable to political attack by palling around with lobbyists. But it’s ever more doubtful that he committed a federal crime.