Meet the lawyer who dropped a political bombshell on the Florida governor’s race

Chris Kise, who was a close associate of then-Republican governor Charlie Crist, has had a long career running in political circles.
File photo of then-Tampa attorney Chris Kise during his 1998 run for state Senate. Kise is now at the center of a controversy that has rocked the Florida governor's race. Credit: Tampa Tribune.
File photo of then-Tampa attorney Chris Kise during his 1998 run for state Senate. Kise is now at the center of a controversy that has rocked the Florida governor's race. Credit: Tampa Tribune.
Published Oct. 25, 2018|Updated Oct. 25, 2018

Tallahassee attorney Chris Kise says he had little choice but to release the records.

On Tuesday, Kise released explosive texts that showed that in 2016, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum knew he was receiving Hamilton tickets from an undercover FBI agent who Gillum believed to be a developer looking to invest in his city. The disclosures could hardly have come at a worse time for Gillum, the Democratic frontrunner in the Florida governor's race who's long had the cloud of an FBI investigation into his city's government hanging over his campaign.

Kise released the texts in his capacity as the attorney for Adam Corey — the Tallahassee lobbyist and former longtime Gillum ally. Since the release, Kise, a veteran lawyer in Republican political circles, has been accused by Gillum's campaign of leading a "partisan witch hunt."

Read more: The FBI investigation in Andrew Gillum's city: What we know and don't know

Read more: Beyond Hamilton, e-mails and texts raise questions on Andrew Gillum's trips with lobbyists

Read more: Records show FBI agents gave Andrew Gillum tickets to 'Hamilton' in 2016

But Kise maintains his timing for releasing the records — two weeks before election day — was not motivated by politics. Kise said he is simply trying to do right by a client, Corey, who Kise says has been the unfair target of speculation by Gillum and some in the news media.

"Corey is plain tired of being in the middle," Kise said.

The records Kise released were the target of a subpoena not by the FBI, but by the Florida Commission on Ethics, which is conducting its own investigation into trips Gillum took in 2016 with lobbyists to New York, Costa Rica — and possibly other places.  (Gillum has not been named in any FBI subpoenas.)

Kise said because the case has become so political, the fact of Corey's response to the subpoena likely would have become public. In order to avoid more public speculation about his client, Kise says, he released the records in full — first to the campaigns of Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis, then to news outlets.

Many state Democrats don't buy Kise's explanation for releasing the records when he did. Some have pointed to Kise's thousands of dollars in contributions to Republicans over the years and his long career as a lawyer in Republican political circles as evidence that he's out to get Gillum. Kise also served on Gov. Rick Scott's transition team with Susie Wiles, who's chairing the campaign of Gillum's Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis.

But Kise says his record contradicts that narrative. He said he's never supported Desantis, and was an early backer of DeSantis' Republican primary opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. He also says his involvement in the Tallahassee case is not new: he has represented Corey since FBI subpoenas first named the Tallahassee lobbyist in June of 2017, three months after Gillum announced he was running for governor.

Kise, 53, began his career some 30 years ago as a lawyer in Tampa. Four years after an unsuccessful 1998 run for State Senate as a Republican, Kise was officially introduced to the Tallahassee political world by his longtime friend, Charlie Crist. In 2002, Crist, then the Republican attorney general-elect, picked Kise to be the Florida's solicitor general. Between 2003 and 2006, Kise was charged with arguing before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Florida.

"That was the best job as a lawyer I've ever had," Kise said. (Kise has argued four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court over the course of his career and won all four.)

When Crist assumed the governor's mansion in 2007, Kise came along, serving as a legal advisor. But he left that official post after a few months to take a job in private practice at Foley and Lardner LLP.

Even after he left his official role, Kise maintained close contact with the Crist administration. In 2008, the lawyer drew criticism from then-Public Service Commissioner Nancy Argenziano because he served simultaneously as an informal "special adviser on energy and climate change" to Crist and as a private practice attorney who sometimes represented corporate polluters. (Kise at the time said Argenziano's criticism was ridiculous: "I never discuss client business with the governor," he said.)

Even though Crist has, in the past decade, morphed from a Republican rising star to an independent U.S. Senate candidate to a Democratic Congressman, Kise says their friendship remains.

"I don't care what his politics are. He's my friend first," Kise said.

Kise's final act in the highest levels of state government came during the Rick Scott transition in late 2010 and early 2011. As the transition's legal counselor, his task was to help shepherd an inexperienced team into the highest levels of state government.

Those efforts drew some criticism from advocates for Florida's open records law when it was revealed that Scott's transition team deleted dozens of emails. Kise said the records were deleted under his watch unintentionally when the team moved from one email server to another. The transition team was able to recover many of the lost emails, but not all of them.

After serving on the transition, Kise was appointed by Scott to the board of Enterprise Florida, which gives away millions in state tax incentives every year. He left that position in 2016.