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Andrew Gillum, DeSantis' 2018 opponent, accused in indictment of wire fraud, false statements

Gillum, once a rising Democratic star in Florida, and his mentor are accused of fraudulent fundraising. He says he's innocent.

Andrew Gillum, the once-rising Florida Democratic star who narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race to Ron DeSantis, was hit with a 21-count federal indictment Wednesday alleging wire fraud, related conspiracy charges and making false statements.

Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee, was charged along with his mentor, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, with fraudulently fundraising from "various entities" from 2016 to 2019, the Justice Department said in a news release. The Justice Department alleged that the two diverted some of the money to a company controlled by Lettman-Hicks, who fraudulently disguised the funds as payroll payments to Gillum.

In a written statement, Gillum and his lawyers proclaimed his innocence. Lettman-Hicks — a candidate for a state House seat — hasn’t replied to texts or calls requesting comment.

“I have spent the last 20 years of my life in public service and continue to fight for the people,” Gillum said. “Every campaign I’ve run has been done with integrity. Make no mistake that this case is not legal, it is political. Throughout my career I have always stood up for the people of Florida and have spoken truth to power. There’s been a target on my back ever since I was the mayor of Tallahassee. They found nothing then, and I have full confidence that my legal team will prove my innocence now.”

The indictment marks a new low for Gillum, a married father of three who withdrew from public life as a political leader and a paid CNN commentator after a March 2020 sex scandal involving a suspected male overdose victim in a hotel in the South Beach neighborhood of Miami Beach. 

At the time, Gillum said he was abusing alcohol as he coped with his loss to DeSantis. Campaign finance records and a leaked criminal subpoena in 2019 showed that Gillum also faced the pressure of an FBI investigation.

Two sources with whom Gillum spoke Tuesday said he began phoning friends frantically about the criminal case when he was informed that his indictment was imminent. Neither would speak on the record because they weren’t authorized to speak on his behalf. They said Gillum turned himself in to prosecutors at 10 a.m. and that his indictment could be unsealed at 1 p.m. ET. He makes his first appearance at 2 p.m., according to the Justice Department.

“He’s down. He’s sad. He feels beat up,” one of the sources said.

Both face 19 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, each of which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Gillum faces two additional charges of lying to investigators, each of which carries a maximum five-year sentence.

According to the indictment, the FBI began to sniff out the alleged scheme in 2016, when Gillum was mayor and undercover agents investigating corruption in the city were steered to him. The two are alleged to have used his position as mayor, as a progressive activist and then as a top candidate for governor to skim money from a variety of individual donors and nonprofit groups, fraudulently pretending to perform voter outreach or to fight for local government rights while pocketing the cash — even after his campaign for governor ended in 2018.

Gillum's decision to resign from his job at the liberal group People for the American Way in early 2017 was particularly stressful, the indictment said, because he couldn’t absorb the loss of the $122,500 annual salary. According to the indictment, he and Lettman-Hicks then arranged for more money to flow through Lettman-Hicks’ communications business, P&P Communications, which paid him as an employee or as a contractor.

Gillum had been under federal investigation for years, starting with his time as mayor of Tallahassee, when he accepted freebies from lobbyists and special interests — including a free New York Harbor boat ride and tickets in New York to the musical “Hamilton,” which were supplied by an undercover FBI agent posing as a corrupt developer with a company called Southern Pines. Gillum, who wasn’t charged in that scheme, agreed to pay a $5,000 state ethics fine for improperly accepting gifts.

At one point, one of the undercover FBI agents offered to contribute money to Gillum surreptitiously on the condition that Southern Pines get favorable consideration in City Hall, the indictment said. Gillum, unaware that he and an unnamed associate were talking to an undercover agent, later lied in June 2017 to the FBI by saying he had cut off contact with "Southern Pines," according to the indictment.

The FBI investigation and the revelations of his hobnobbing with lobbyists helped doom his campaign against DeSantis, who repeatedly described Gillum as “corrupt” and defeated him by less than half a percentage point. 

The campaign made Gillum — a dynamic speaker who was the Democratic Party’s first Black nominee for governor in Florida — into a political celebrity and a sought-after speaker. After his loss, he became a CNN commentator, a Harvard University guest lecturer and a frequent guest on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO, and he converted his political committee into a voter registration effort in 2019, pledging to sign up and “re-engage” 1 million voters to help Democrats turn Florida blue. 

But by the end of the year Gillum was paying more money for legal work to top Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who downplayed the federal subpoena asking Gillum for numerous records in 2019. 

“In my experience, this is the kind of inquiry campaigns often receive once an election is over,” Elias told The Tallahassee Democrat at the time. “I am confident that Forward Florida and Mayor Gillum have complied with the law and the facts will bear that out.”

On Wednesday, Elias and his co-counsel for Gillum, top criminal defense attorney David Oscar Markus, issued a joint statement pledging to clear Gillum's name.

Image: Andrew Gillum
Andrew Gillum, then the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, at a rally at the Ice Palace film studios in Miami on Nov. 2, 2018.mpi10 / MediaPunch /IPX via AP file

“The government got it wrong today. The evidence in this case is clear and will show that Mr. Gillum is innocent of all charges. We look forward to putting this case to rest and giving Andrew and his family peace of mind once and for all,” the lawyers said.

The wide-ranging subpoena wasn’t limited to Gillum’s campaign, seeking information about his work for a nonprofit group and his ties to a wealthy donor and about Lettman-Hicks, who was the top adviser to Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign and his Tallahassee City Commission and mayoral races.

Lettman-Hicks, a consultant who runs the National Black Justice Coalition, which advocates for Black LGBTQ people, suggested in 2019 that the federal investigation was racially motivated.

“I happen to be a PAWN being used by the oppressor to raise even more speculation about how an educated, working class Black man could run a phenomenal statewide campaign, become a national phenom, and didn’t resort to backhanded tactics to advance his agenda,” she wrote in a Facebook post in reaction to the subpoena.

Lettman-Hicks filed this month to run for a state House seat after Rep. Ramon Alexander resigned in a sexting scandal. She told The Tallahassee Democrat that she is running to be a check on DeSantis, who is up for re-election.

“The governor is operating with unchecked power. I think it is unhealthy to sit on the sidelines and see Democracy in peril and not do everything in your power as a citizen to be a counter voice.”

CORRECTION (June 22, 2022, 3:54 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the terms of the prison sentence Gillum and Lettman-Hicks would face if they are convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The maximum sentence — not the minimum — on each count is 20 years. (They each face 19 counts.)