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President Donald Trump described Democrat Andrew Gillum’s city of Tallahassee as having a reputation that no city would want for a slogan: most corrupt.
"Here's a guy that, in my opinion, is a stone-cold thief, and his city, Tallahassee, is known as the most corrupt in Florida, and one of the most corrupt in the nation," Trump told Laura Ingraham on Fox News Oct. 29.
The most corrupt in Florida? That’s a tall order in a state with a long history of corruption convictions of public officials. Florida leaders have been caught doing everything from covering up fraudulent votes in Miami to a Broward County school official who stuffed bribes into a restaurant doggie bag.
Trump was attacking Gillum, who is running for governor against Trump’s endorsed candidate, Ron DeSantis.
Trump’s condemnation of Tallahassee is at least somewhat misleading, because no one has been charged in the FBI’s probe of the city, which stretches back to at least 2015. A related state ethics investigation is also pending.
When Trump called Gillum a "thief" he was referencing Gillum getting a ticket to the Broadway hit Hamilton arranged by an FBI agent posing as a developer. Gillum has said the FBI told him in 2017 that he wasn’t the target, but the outcome of the pending case remains unknown.
We are not putting Trump’s statement declaring Tallahassee the most corrupt in Florida on the Truth-O-Meter, because that is difficult to quantify. But we’ll explore Tallahassee’s reputation for corruption — or not — in this story.
We found no comprehensive data comparing corruption among all cities in Florida or the U.S.
Much of the research about public corruption focuses on the federal government’s prosecutions of officials broken down by federal judicial district.
There were 103 corruption convictions in Florida’s Northern District between 2008-2017. But that’s far less than those for many other judicial districts in the United States, including the other two districts in Florida.
Raj Shah, the White House spokesman, argues that federal corruption convictions doesn’t tell the story about corruption in Tallahassee, because the FBI’s case remains ongoing.
Beyond Tallahassee, some other cities and counties in Florida have drawn attention for corruption investigations.
That includes Opa-locka, a community of about 16,000 people in Miami-Dade County. A long-running FBI investigation has led to guilty pleas by seven people, including three Opa-locka officials, stemming from bribery and extortion schemes, the Miami Herald reported.
"I believe the most corrupt city in Florida — if there really is such a city — is Opa-locka," Nova Southeastern University law professor Bob Jarvis said. "But all such claims are hyperbole."
Other local governments have been referred to as the hotbed of government corruption in the past, including Palm Beach, when a handful of city and county commissioners had been convicted of federal corruption charges.
"Palm Beach: The New Capital of Florida Corruption," a 2009 TIME magazine headline declared.
Miami-Dade County has a long and storied history of corruption, including an absentee ballot scandal during the 1997 Miami mayoral election that led to dozens of convictions, including a Miami city commissioner, and the results of the election being thrown out.
But ethics experts including Anthony V. Alfieri, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, caution against declaring a jurisdiction as the most corrupt without evidence.
"Credible comparisons require evidence-based data, rather than anecdotal conjecture," he said.
Two academics examined federal corruption convictions and the isolation of state government capital cities and concluded that corruption reads more easily in isolated state capitals.
"The point is about corruption at the state level, and what we can say is that Florida matches the (relatively high) levels of corruption that one would expect given the (relatively high) isolation of Tallahassee," said Felipe Compante, who is now at Johns Hopkins University. "But note that Florida doesn’t seem to be an outlier in terms of corruption."
Ben Wilcox, research director at Integrity Florida, said Trump’s statement that Tallahassee is the most corrupt city doesn’t hold water, because there have been no convictions.
"To label Tallahassee corrupt before we know the results of these investigations that have been going on is just not accurate," he said.
Fox News, Interview with President Donald Trump, Oct. 29, 2018
U.S. Department of Justice, Report to Congress on the Activities and Operations of the Public Integrity Section for 2017
University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Political Science, Anti-corruption report No. 10, May 15, 2018
University of South Florida graduate student Andrew Jonathon Wilson, "Comparative Political Corruption in the United States: The Florida Perspective," January 2013
American Economic Review, "Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability, and Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States," 2014
Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, "Florida leaders’ calls for crackdown on corruption go unheeded,"Aug. 26, 2016
USA Today, "FBI agents went undercover in Florida's capital for the 'biggest investigation in years,'" Aug. 14, 2017
New York Times, "Andrew Gillum Shocked Florida With a Primary Win. But an F.B.I. Inquiry Clouds His," Sept. 1, 2018
Tallahassee Democrat, "Tallahassee: Breeding ground for corruption," Aug. 14, 2014
Miami Herald, "Four candidates compete to be mayor in still-struggling city of Opa-locka," Oct. 11, 2018
Miami Herald, "Despite past legal and ethics questions, Opa-locka rehires former city manager," Oct. 4, 2018
Tampa Tribune, "Study: Isolated capitals open to corruption," May 27, 2013
Miami New Times, "Ranking Miami-Dade's Most Corrupt Cities," July 17, 2018
New York Times, "18 Are Arrested in 1997 Miami Ballot Fraud," Oct. 29, 1998
Stetson Law, "From rumblings to reality: one city’s story of ethics reform," 2017
Tampa Bay Times The Buzz, "Ron DeSantis keeps up negative (and false) attacks on Gillum in Tampa," Oct. 20, 2018
Washington Post, "Trump calls Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum a ‘thief’ without citing evidence," Oct. 29, 2018
US News, "Florida Commissioner Subpoenaed in Corruption Investigation," Sept. 17, 2017
WXTL, "Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum responds to FBI investigation," June 23, 2017
University of Florida press release, "Ted Bridis Comments on Growing National Attention for Tallahassee FBI Investigation," Sept. 3, 2018
Transparency International, "Corruption in the U.S.: the difference a year makes," Dec. 12, 2017
Fivethirtyeight, "Ranking The States From Most To Least Corrupt," Jan 23, 2018
TIME, "Palm Beach: The New Capital of Florida Corruption," Jan. 10, 2009
Vice, "This Florida City Has Been Nearly Destroyed by Poverty and Corruption," May 18, 2016
Thrillist, "Florida's Worst Corruption Scandals, Ranked," Oct. 29, 2015
FBI, Press release about Broward cases, Sept. 23, 2009
PolitiFact, "Jeff Kottkamp says three Broward County Commissioners arrested by FBI," July 30, 2010
PolitiFact, "Governor's debate fact-check: Andrew Gillum's Hamilton ticket, Ron DeSantis' $145,000 trips," Oct. 24, 2018
PolitiFact, "No, Florida's Andrew Gillum does not have a far left socialist platform," Sept. 6, 2018
Interview, Raj Shah, White House spokesman, Oct. 30, 2018
Interview, Alison Faris, city of Tallahassee spokeswoman, Oct. 30, 2018
Interview, Joe Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust 2011-2018, Oct. 30, 2018
Interview, Anthony V. Alfieri, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, Oct. 30, 2018
Interview, Bob Jarvis, Nova Southeastern University law professor, Oct. 30, 2018
Interview, Dick Simpson, University of Illinois political science professor, Oct. 30, 2018
Interview, Filipe Campante, Johns Hopkins University economics professor, Oct. 31, 2018
Interview, Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, Associate Professor of Political Science and Founding Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida, Oct. 31, 2018
Interview, Carlie Waibel, Andrew Gillum campaign spokeswoman, Oct. 31, 2018
Interview, Ed Griffith, Miami Dade state attorney spokesman, Oct. 31, 2018
Interview, Julie Meadows-Keefe, city of Tallahassee ethics officer, Oct. 31, 2018
Interview, Ben Wilcox, Integrity Florida research director, Oct. 31, 2018