Fact-checking an attack on Andrew Gillum’s ties to an FBI investigation in Tallahassee
In his campaign for Florida governor, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has faced attacks over an ongoing FBI corruption probe related to development in his city.
Gillum has pushed back by saying he isn’t the target of law enforcement. But Republicans who support their party’s nominee, Rep. Ron DeSantis, are playing up Gillum’s connections to the probe.
A Republican Party of Florida TV ad splices together soundbites from TV reporters with a sinister narrator to paint a portrait of Gillum as a man in investigators’ crosshairs.
"Andrew Gillum is running for governor and also from the FBI," the ad says.
"Andrew Gillum has ties to an active criminal investigation. Gillum took possible illegal trips with lobbyists to New York and Costa Rica. More controversy concerning Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum. Gillum approved millions in grants for those same lobbyists. An ongoing corruption probe. Now Gillum refuses to disclose who has paid him."
Gillum’s campaign attorney calls the ad inaccurate and defamatory.
What’s the truth?
There is a federal probe of the city Gillum runs. Details about it are scarce, but you wouldn’t know it from the ad. Far from "running from the FBI," Gillum met with the bureau at his home, without a lawyer, which is essentially the opposite of running from the FBI.
It appears unlikely that law enforcement will announce the results of their investigation before the Nov. 6 election, so we wanted to explain the ad’s claims and where it stretches the truth.
The investigation started in 2015, when FBI agents posed as businessmen identifying themselves as Mike Sweets, Mike Miller and Brian Butler. They spent months schmoozing city officials and those around them. The undercover agents said they wanted to invest in properties if they could get public funding.
In June 2017, FBI agents delivered a subpoena to Tallahassee City Hall requesting thousands of pages of records from key players in city government. The records related to top local developers behind projects subsidized by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The FBI issued more subpoenas through May 2018, and the city has turned over about 200,000 records.
Among those named in the subpoenas is Adam Corey, a lobbyist-restaurateur. This is the part of the ad that says "Gillum approved millions in grants for those same lobbyists."
In 2013, the city voted to give more than $2.1 million in public funds to renovate the Edison, a restaurant project Corey co-owns. But the ad omits that Gillum wasn’t alone in his support -- other city commissioners joined him in voting for the project in a city-owned building. A July 2013 vote in favor of the project passed unanimously, while the commission voted 4-1 on an additional motion in December 2013.
During the December meeting, Gillum asked the city attorney if he had any conflict voting on the item since Corey, a friend since college, had been his volunteer campaign treasurer. He proceeded with the vote after the attorney said he had no conflict.
In 2017, Gillum cut off ties with Corey when he found out about Corey’s involvement in the FBI probe.
The ad is wrong when it states that Gillum is running from the FBI.
The Tallahassee Democrat broke the story about the investigation on June 22, 2017. The next day, Gillum said he had already met with the FBI, and that the FBI told him he was not the focus of the investigation.
"Last week, the FBI approached me about several people and businesses here in Tallahassee," Gillum said in a statement. "I spoke with them and told them they could expect both the city and my personal cooperation with the investigation. They assured me I was not the focus of an investigation and that they would be moving quickly with their work."
Gillum met with the FBI without a lawyer present. Barry Richard, Gillum’s attorney for a related state ethics commission complaint, told PolitiFact that the FBI has not asked for any subsequent meeting with Gillum or any documents from him.
"There is no FBI probe of Gillum," Richard said. "The only connection is the FBI asked him some questions in his home and told him he wasn’t the focus."
Steven R. Andrews, a Tallahassee attorney representing the city’s former manager — who testified before the federal grand jury — told Politico he believes Gillum is in the clear. Prosecutors never asked his client about the mayor, Andrews said.
The Republicans’ evidence that Gillum has "ties to an active criminal investigation" stems from a September 2018 Politico article. The article stated that Gillum’s driving records are tied to an "active criminal investigation" and can’t be released unredacted by the state, according to an audit housed with the Florida Department of Highway and Motor Vehicles.
GIllum’s lawyer told Politico that the government agencies frequently cite this statute when any information is redacted.
Politico subsequently reported that the designation does not mean Gillum is the target of an investigation, but his records are tied to some form of ongoing probe.
The Republicans were somewhat careful here because they used the phrase "possible illegal trips." At this point, there has been no finding that Gillum’s trips with lobbyists broke any laws, though ethics watchdogs said the trip blurs the lines between friendship and business.
A local businessman who is a frequent city hall critic filed complaints with the state ethics commission against Gillum related to these trips. Erwin Jackson alleged that Gillum may have violated ethics laws that prohibit public officials from accepting or soliciting gifts from lobbyists and vendors. Gillum has met with the state ethics investigator, but the matter is not expected to be resolved before the election.
In May 2016, Gillum and his wife vacationed with Corey and lobbyist Sean Pittman at a $1,400-a-night luxury resort on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. Gillum has described the trip as a vacation for his wife’s birthday where they stayed with about 10 people.
Gillum has said he paid $400 in cash for his and his wife's share of their four-night stay.
Gillum’s staff said that the trip was personal in nature, but Corey sent Gillum a calendar invite during the trip for a meeting between himself, Gillum and the undercover FBI agent Mike Miller, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
In August 2016, Gillum attended a conference in New York City on behalf of the People for the American Way Foundation, a nonprofit that employed Gillum. At the end of the trip, Gillum hung out with Corey and two undercover agents posing as businessmen and they took a boat ride to the Statue of Liberty and watched the musical "Hamilton."
Earlier in the year, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency unanimously voted to include more properties in a redevelopment zone, including some that Miller, the undercover agent, had his eye on. But Gillum was absent for that vote.
There is no evidence that Gillum received any illegal infusion of cash to pay for the trips, though news reporters have pressed Gillum’s campaign to provide more evidence to document that he paid for the trips.
After Gillum met with a state ethics investigator in early September, the campaign released a poorly redacted bank statement among invoices and receipts related to his trips.
The bank statement included a $15,000 deposit into his personal checking account, the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reported. Richard told PolitiFact that the deposit was a transfer from Gillum’s savings account to his checking account.
On the same page was an entry showing a $400 cash withdrawal that the campaign says was cash Gillum used to pay for his lodging in Costa Rica. Richard told PolitiFact that Gillum -- while under oath -- told the state ethics investigator that when he arrived in Costa Rica, he asked Corey what his lodging cost would be including any tips. Corey told him it would be about $400, so Gillum paid him that amount.
Christopher Kise, an attorney representing Corey, disputed Gillum’s account in an interview with the Associated Press. He said that Corey won the Costa Rica lodging through a charity auction and "to date Mr. Corey has not received any cash from the mayor."
A lawyer for the Gillum campaign wrote a letter to TV stations urging them to take the ad down. The letter says there is no basis to state that anyone paid Gillum.