Corruption trial begins for man who almost beat DeSantis

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The Democrat who nearly beat Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2018 pocketed illegal campaign contributions because he was having a hard time paying for his lifestyle after quitting his job to run for governor, a prosecutor said Tuesday as a corruption trial began.

Andrew Gillum, who was Tallahassee’s mayor, had a large mortgage, was making payments on two expensive cars and was paying private school tuition for his children when he quit his $120,000-a-year job at People for the American Way to run for the Democratic nomination for governor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Milligan said in opening statements.

“This case is not about politics,” Milligan said. “This case is about deceiving donors (and) stealing from his own campaign.”

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Gillum surprised many by winning the 2018 Democratic nomination with far less money than other candidates in the race. In the general election, he energized the party’s base and nearly beat DeSantis. A recount was required before DeSantis was declared the winner.

One of the men Gillum’s team reached out for campaign donations was an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer exploring projects in Florida’s capital, Milligan said, adding that Gillum used his brother Marcus as a go-between to arrange illegal contributions.

Gillum funneled those donations and others through a supporter’s public relations agency, which put him on the payroll even though he wasn’t actually working for the six-figure salary, Milligan said.

But defense attorney Margot Moss said Gillum’s position at P & P Communications was legitimate. Owner and co-defendant Sharon Lettman-Hicks knew Gillum, who gave a prominent speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, was a rising political star and wanted him to help drive business to the firm.

Marcus Gillum acted on his own in soliciting donations for Gillum’s campaign for governor because he wanted to impress his older brother, Moss said.

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”Marcus says crazy things, Marcus says unbelievable things. But he is not Andrew Gillum,” Moss said. “Marcus is all talk. That’s why they went to Marcus Gillum.”

Gillum is also charged with lying to the FBI about a trip to New York, where undercover FBI agents met Gilllum, his brother and lobbyist friend Adam Corey, who earlier introduced Gillum to the agents. The FBI paid for hotel rooms, theater tickets to “Hamilton,” meals and a boat tour around New York Harbor.

The agent who paid for the New York entertainment testified that Gillum wasn’t the original target of the investigation. Rather, the agency was investigating developer J.T. Burnette and starting looking at Gillum as they began to unpeel corruption that involved Burnette and then-City Commissioner Scott Maddox, another former Tallahassee mayor who ran for governor more than a decade earlier.

Last year, Maddox pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and a jury convicted Burnette of bribery, extortion and other charges.

“The FBI found corruption, but not with Andrew Gillum,” Moss said.

Corey set up meetings between the mayor and the agent and sought political donations from the agent. When Miller found out Gillum was going to New York, he set up a trip to the city and contacted Corey to see if he could get together with Gillum while they were both in town.

The agent testified Tuesday that it was hard to get time with Gillum in Tallahassee, and he thought a meeting in New York would help them bond in a more casual atmosphere where Gillum wouldn’t be constantly interrupted. The goal was to earn Gillum’s trust and to get to know him over time, the agent said.

The jury heard recorded conversations of Gillum thanking Miller for hosting and saw text messages arranging the plans.

Corruption trial begins for man who almost beat DeSantis

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