Photo via NSF
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum leaves a federal courthouse in June after being indicted.
Prosecutors on Tuesday laid out a complex set of corruption charges against former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, as his lawyers argued that the federal government “put a target on the back” of the onetime rising political star.
The opening arguments came in what could be a three-week trial in allegations of public corruption against Gillum and a longtime political ally, Sharon Lettman-Hicks.
Gillum, a former Tallahassee mayor who narrowly lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to Ron DeSantis, faces 19 charges of lying to federal investigators, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and committing wire fraud. The charges are related to activities between 2016 and 2019, as Gillum’s national stature blossomed.
Gary K. Milligan II, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, outlined a series of transactions involving contributions from a handful of non-profit organizations to P&P Communications, a company controlled by Lettman-Hicks. Milligan accused her of illegally steering campaign-related funds to Gillum for his personal use.
Milligan pointed to comments then-Mayor Gillum made to undercover investigators who had sought favors and offered campaign contributions as he was mulling a run for governor.
“You need to separate those things in your mind. The one has nothing to do with the other,” Gillum told the agents in 2017.
The prosecutor repeatedly accused Gillum of “attempting to distance himself” from the alleged wrongdoing. “He wants something to happen but doesn’t want to take responsibility for it and he’s separating himself from it,” Milligan argued.
But in her opening remarks, Gillum attorney A. Margot Moss relied on the same remarks used by Milligan to try to show her client’s innocence.
“I need you in your mind’s eye (to) dissociate that. It’s a requirement that you do,” Gillum also told an investigator after one conversation.
“Andrew Gillum refused to take a bribe,” Moss argued, pointing out that Gillum told the undercover investigator that “the one has nothing to do with the other.”
Gillum was “so angry” the fake businessmen were trying to bribe him that he asked a friend, prominent Tallahassee lobbyist and lawyer Sean Pittman, to intervene.
“He’s a real politician, so anytime it looks like a quid pro quo, that scares the (expletive) out of him,” Pittman told one of the agents, according to court documents Moss showed to the jury Tuesday.
The charges stem from payments Gillum received after stepping down from his job at the liberal-advocacy group People for the American Way, where he earned $122,500, in addition to his roughly $70,000 annual salary as mayor. After launching his bid for governor and leaving the job in 2017, Gillum began receiving regular payments from P&P, according to an indictment issued last year by a grand jury. Federal prosecutors filed a “superseding” indictment last week that dropped two of the initial charges against Gillum and Lettman-Hicks.
The indictment accused the defendants of having “engaged in an ongoing and evolving scheme to defraud by unlawfully soliciting and obtaining funds from various entities and individuals through false and fraudulent representations and promises that the funds would be used for a legitimate purpose, but instead using third parties to divert a portion of those funds to P&P, which Lettman-Hicks then fraudulently provided to Gillum for his personal use disguised as payroll payments.”
Milligan on Tuesday accused Gillum and Lettman-Hicks of “deceiving campaign donors” to keep money flowing to P&P.
“This case is not about politics. Whether he was the best mayor or worst mayor, it doesn’t matter,” Milligan said, urging jurors to be patient and pay close attention in the coming days.
“There’s not going to be any magic moment,” he said. “Wait and listen carefully.”
But Moss depicted Gillum as a victim of undercover agents who spent years “cozying up” to him and earning his trust.
“This case is about what happens when you put a target on someone’s back and then they twist … they guess and speculate that it hits the target and they make believe,” Moss said.
Gillum “wasn’t distancing” himself from any nefarious activity, Moss argued.
“He’s just not involved. Andrew Gillum doesn’t know the source of the money, doesn’t know whether it was obtained by fraud,” Moss said. “Let’s be real. Andrew Gillum was running for governor, running up and down the state. … He’s not thinking about, ‘Where’s P&P getting my money?’”
Moss emphasized that Gillum “never took a bribe,” despite being tempted with cash.
He “never took a bribe, never defrauded anyone. He never lied to federal agents and he never committed conspiracy,” she added. Moss also said Lettman-Hicks’ payments to Gillum, in part, were related to “branding” of his campaign logo and image.
“This is a simple case. Andrew Gillum did not know. And because Andrew Gillulm did not know, he is not guilty,” Moss said.
Moss also sketched out Gillum’s early life, noting that he was the first in his family to graduate from high school and from a university. She painted a portrait of a young Andrew Gillum as a “nerdy little kid” who watched U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a long-serving California Democrat who is Black, on C-SPAN.
Gillum’s political success “was destiny come true” for him, Moss said.
Gillum’s lawyers, in part, have argued that he was targeted because he was a Black Democrat running for governor.
But U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who in December rejected a request to dismiss the charges against Gillum, admonished Gillum’s attorneys after Tuesday’s opening statements.
“This case is going to be tried on facts and evidence, not about whether someone grew up poor or whether they were inspired by somebody,” Winsor, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, warned after the jury left the room.
The charges against Gillum came after a lengthy FBI public-corruption probe also snared Scott Maddox, a former Tallahassee city commissioner and former Florida Democratic Party chairman. Maddox pleaded guilty in 2019 and served time in federal prison.
Moss noted that, while federal investigators rooted out corruption in Tallahassee, they did not find Gillum had committed any wrongdoing, despite poring over years of his texts, emails and bank documents.
“After a year spending tens of thousands of your — taxpayer — money, flying around the country, wining and dining … still they’re trying to get that target,” Moss said, accusing the FBI of trying to trap Gillum into lying about campaign-related finances.
Wrapping up Tuesday, Moss repeated that the case is not about bribery.
“You know what’s going on here. This case is about what happens when you put a target on Andrew Gillum’s back,” she said.