Tuesday, September 26

Andrew Gillum, DeSantis’ 2018 opponent, indicted for wire fraud, false statements

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 for wire fraud, related conspiracy charges and making false statements.

Gillum, the former Tallahassee mayor, was charged along with his mentor, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, for fraudulently fundraising from “various entities” between 2016 to 2019, according to a Department of Justice press release. The Justice Department said the two allegedly 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 — has not returned texts or calls from NBC News 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.”

Marc Elias, a leading Democratic lawyer, and top criminal defense attorney David Oscar Markus also issued a joint statement said they’ll fight to clear his name.

“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 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 South Beach hotel. 

At the time, Gillum said he was abusing alcohol as he coped with his loss to DeSantis, but 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 told NBC News that he began phoning friends frantically about the criminal case. Neither would speak on the record because they weren’t authorized to speak on his behalf. They said Gillum rendered himself 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 DOJ.

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

That source said Gillum was called Tuesday morning and informed he was going to be charged for campaign finance-related crimes.

However, the DOJ press release does not mention the exact nature of the alleged crimes. Some of them allegedly predated his run for governor in 2018 and occurred while he was Tallahassee mayor, starting in 2016, and not a statewide candidate.

Both faces 19 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Each charge carries a maximum 20-year mandatory minimum. Gillum faces two additional charges of lying to investigators, each charge of which carries a maximum 5-year sentence.

Gillum had been under federal investigation for years, starting with his time as Tallahassee mayor 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 corrupt developer. Gillum was not charged in that scheme, but he agreed to pay a $5,000 state ethics fine for improperly accepting gifts.

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 the Democrat by less than half a percentage point. 

The campaign made Gillum — a dynamic speaker and the Democratic Party’s first Black gubernatorial nominee in Florida — into a political celebrity and a sought-after speaker. After his loss, he became a CNN commentator, a Harvard University guest lecturer, a frequent guest on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO and 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 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.”

The wide-ranging subpoena wasn’t limited to Gillum’s campaign and sought information about his work for a nonprofit, his ties to a wealthy donor and 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 that advocates for Black LBGTQ 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.

Earlier this month, Lettman-Hicks filed to run for a state House seat after the incumbent, Rep. Ramon Alexander, resigned amid a sexting scandal. She told The Tallahassee Democrat she 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.”

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