Is the city of Tallahassee the most corrupt in Florida as President Trump said?
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.