After Andrew Gillum narrowly lost his gubernatorial bid in November, the Florida Democrat still seemed destined for big things. His stunning primary victory proved him to be an effective, charismatic campaigner with a penchant for bold progressive policies. Gillum appeared poised for a Senate run, or maybe a 2022 gubernatorial rematch against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose associations with racists continue to cause turmoil. But a Florida ethics probe into Gillum’s conduct as Tallahassee mayor has made his political future cloudier than it once appeared. On Friday, that investigation took a new, serious turn, when a state commission found probable cause that Gillum violated ethics laws by accepting gifts from lobbyists.
This latest development, reported in the Tallahassee Democrat, should not be confused with the FBI probe into corruption in Tallahassee, which looks to be uninterested in Gillum.
But it’s still a blow to his political ambitions—a splotch on his record that arises from alleged conduct that might be generously described as unseemly. Until now, Gillum has waved away criticisms of his behavior as a partisan smear campaign. Friday’s decision undermines that defense, giving future opponents legitimate grist to attack his character.
Although the Florida ethics investigation is separate from the FBI probe, it revolves around Gillum’s interactions with undercover FBI agents who infiltrated Tallahassee politics in 2015. That year, a Tallahassee lobbyist named Adam Corey befriended an agent posing as a developer named Mike Miller. In 2016, Corey took Gillum on a luxury vacation to Costa Rica and, while there, scheduled a meeting between Gillum and Miller. Later, Corey, Miller, and Gillum took a trip to New York City. Corey booked Gillum a hotel room and told him that Miller and his “crew” had obtained tickets to Hamilton. In addition to seeing the play, the three men took a catered boat tour around the Statue of Liberty.
It now appears the FBI was primarily focused on Tallahassee Commissioner Scott Maddox, who was indicted in December for bribery, extortion, fraud, and racketeering. The Costa Rica and New York trips, however, remain damaging for Gillum. Florida law requires state officials to report all gifts from lobbyists that have a value greater than $100. Gillum says he paid for his share of the Costa Rica trip, and that he thought his brother had procured the Hamilton tickets. But receipts suggest that he underpaid for the Costa Rica vacation, unless he somehow got the world’s greatest deal on a luxury villa. Moreover, text messages demonstrate that he knew Miller, and not his brother, paid for the Hamilton tickets. (Corey released these damning records just before the 2018 election after he fell out with Gillum and hired a GOP operative to defend him against the FBI probe.)
Given that Gillum never disclosed the villa vacation, the New York hotel room, the Hamilton ticket, and the boat tour, a Tallahassee businessman filed an ethics complaint against him.
Now, following an investigation, the Florida Commission on Ethics has found probable cause that Gillum did, indeed, violate ethics laws by failing to report the freebies he received from Corey (an actual lobbyist) and Miller (an FBI agent posing as a real estate developer who was lobbying Tallahassee). An administrative law judge will conduct an evidentiary hearing in the next 45 to 60 days at which Gillum can dispute the commission’s findings, which will soon be made public. If the judge concludes that he ran afoul of the law, he or she can issue fines as well as an official reprimand. (Gillum can also enter into a settlement with the commission, though his lawyer spurned that option on Friday.)
However Gillum chooses to proceed, it’s clear that Friday’s findings undermine his account and, by extension, his credibility. Throughout the campaign, he insisted that he paid his share of the lavish excursions and never accepted gifts from lobbyists. That narrative is now almost impossible to believe. True, Gillum never performed favors for lobbyists in exchange for their largesse, which would be a federal offense. But even without a quid pro quo, his cozy relationship with lobbyists did not seem to comport with Florida law.
Should Gillum run for office down the road, this blunder will likely be used as a cudgel, risking his ability to win a primary, let alone a general election. Perhaps it is too soon to write off his political career. But if he ever again throws his hat in the ring, his opponents will be ready to pounce with a sordid—and substantiated—tale of corruption.
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