Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has gotten pretty good at answering questions about whether he accepted favors from lobbyists and gifts from undercover FBI agents.
It's a skill he's going to need more than ever during the next two weeks if he wants to become Florida governor.
Tuesday's release of private emails and text messages by a former friend detailing the mayor's trips to Central America with lobbyists and to New York with federal investigators couldn't have come at a worse time for Gillum. With just two weeks left on the trail, his campaign had been humming, on top of GOP nominee Ron DeSantis in every publicly released poll and perhaps ahead in enthusiasm and momentum.
But with early voting just under way, Gillum could be dogged until election day by questions about who paid for what, and whether he's been lying about his relationships with Tallahassee insiders and fake developers who spent years poking around Tallahassee City Hall in search of corruption.
"Of course he lied," DeSantis said Tuesday during a campaign stop in a Miami deli. "More will come out."
Gillum, who is adamant that nothing in the documents released Tuesday refuted his prior explanations, has steadfastly denied that he has done anything wrong.
He said quickly that he was told he is not under investigation when news broke in June of 2017 that the FBI was exploring deals involving Tallahassee's community redevelopment agency. When a businessman filed two ethics complaint alleging that Gillum traveled for free with lobbyist friends to Costa Rica and faux developers to New York but failed to disclose it, the mayor again said he was innocent.
He released receipts and bank statements last month that proved he paid at least some of his own way. But on Tuesday, former friend and mayoral campaign treasurer Adam Corey publicly released more than 100 pages of emails and text messages that appear to contradict some of Gillum's defenses. An attorney for Corey, the Tallahassee lobbyist and developer who coordinated both trips, said he released the documents after they were subpoenaed by the state's ethics commission.
Text strings showed that Gillum was likely aware that tickets to the Broadway show Hamilton were paid for by "Mike Miller", a fake developer who has since been unmasked as an FBI agent. That information differed with his explanation that he got his ticket to Hamilton from his younger brother, Marcus, who he said had traded passes to a Jay Z concert to Corey in exchange for the Broadway seats. The texts also showed that he stayed in a New York hotel room purchased by Miller.
Corey's emails, meanwhile, show that in an earlier trip to Costa Rica, Corey placed a hold on a bill for Gillum's share of the costs, and that the amount he was to pay for the trip was more than double the $400 the mayor said he took out from his bank account to pay for the vacation. Some of the friends with whom Gillum and his wife vacationed on that trip were investors and lobbyists in Tallahassee.
Gillum's campaign explained Tuesday that the $400 the mayor withdrew from his bank account was in addition to cash already on hand, and the candidate continued to maintain Tuesday that the controversy is merely a "distraction." In a Facebook live stream from Richmond Heights — a Miami neighborhood where he grew up as a child — Gillum said the texts and emails "only confirm what we have said all along." He also blamed Republicans for trying to paint him as unethical and "reinforce, frankly, stereotypes about black men."
"We did go to see Hamilton. I did get my ticket for Hamilton from my brother. At the time we believed that they were reserved by friends of Adam's, Mike Miller," he said. "When I got there after work, got my ticket, we went in and saw it, assumed my brother paid for it. And as far as I know that was the deal."
Democrats were largely inclined to side with Gillum, who by other measures was having a fine day Tuesday. Gillum was in Miami ahead of a campaign fundraiser with former first lady Hillary Clinton at her former campaign headquarters in Wynwood. The event followed a luncheon in Palm Beach County, and between the two events the campaign raised around $2.5 million, according to Democratic booster Chris Korge, who helped coordinate the two events.
Korge said there's more than 400 people scheduled to attend a Thursday fundraiser at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, and that excitement hasn't waned. "It sounds like Adam Corey is pissed off," he said, questioning why Corey's attorney, Chris Kise, released the documents to the public two weeks before the election.
But one Democratic consultant said the controversy could derail Gillum's campaign if the story lingers, comparing it ironically to the letter then-FBI director James Comey issued in the final two weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign noting that a probe of Clinton's private Secretary of State email server had been revived.
"As we saw with the Comey letter, Democrats are more likely to be deflated over something like this and stay home," said the consultant, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly.
On Twitter, Republican media consultant Brian Burgess blasted Gillum's handling of the matter and accused him of playing the race card in his Facebook post.
"This is without question the defining moment for his campaign," Burgess said, "and will make or break him."
The story is almost certain to live on. Gillum has campaign appearances scheduled in South Florida on Thursday, where he will be asked by reporters about the correspondence. He also has a debate scheduled tonight at Broward College with DeSantis, who already tried to interrogate him on his Hamilton tickets during their first debate Sunday on CNN.
"Did you pay for Hamilton?" he asked. "Andrew, did you pay for the trip?"
Gillum didn't address the question.
He'll need to have an answer tonight.