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Gillum dismisses ‘made-up FBI controversies’ while leaving questions unanswered

“I’ve said frankly everything that I know to say on this,” Gillum said Saturday in Tampa during an interview on his campaign bus.
Florida gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum gives a campaign speech while on his "Bring it Home" bus tour at Al Lopez Park in Tampa on Saturday. (OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times)
Florida gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum gives a campaign speech while on his "Bring it Home" bus tour at Al Lopez Park in Tampa on Saturday. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Oct. 29, 2018

Beset by new questions about relationships with lobbyists and FBI agents, Andrew Gillum has been short on answers.

The Democratic nominee for governor was quick to claim vindication and political persecution after a former confidant released hundreds of emails and text messages last week detailing Gillum's travel and campaign activity in 2016. He's dismissed an imbroglio about whether he failed to disclose gifts from developers who turned out to be undercover federal agents as "made-up FBI controversies."

But Tallahassee's mayor has been either unable or unwilling to answer some of the questions posed about his trips around the globe. And while his campaign denies new allegations that a federal investigator paid $4,300 to cater a kick-off fundraiser for the political committee funding his gubernatorial run, it can't explain why finance reports contain no mention of any expenses surrounding the event.

"I've said frankly everything that I know to say on this," Gillum said Saturday in Tampa during an interview on his campaign bus. "Now folks are asking me to answer for which caterer does what? I've done more events than I could count. I couldn't tell you anything about a food venue or quite frankly whether somebody cooked it or somebody catered it. But that apparently is the new expectation."

If Gillum sounds a little exasperated, it might be because he's been answering questions about the FBI for about 20 months now. It was June of 2017 when prosecutors hit City Hall and a Tallahassee redevelopment agency with subpoenas for documents related to development deals and a handful of lobbyists and entrepreneurs, including Gillum's close friend and former campaign treasurer, Adam Corey.

Gillum, already a candidate for governor at the time, quickly acknowledged that he'd met with federal investigators but said he'd been explicitly told that he's not a subject of any FBI probe. A few months later, he told the Tallahassee Democrat that he'd severed ties with Corey, a lobbyist who in 2016 set up a meeting at his restaurant and an evening in Manhattan between Gillum and undercover FBI agents posing as developers and business investors.

Plenty of people thought the FBI probe — which spun-off several ethics complaints and ensuing state investigations around the mayor's travel — would tank Gillum's primary campaign. It didn't. Nor have predictions of impending indictments come true: No one has been charged with any crimes, and the state's Commission on Ethics hasn't deemed Gillum to have violated any Florida laws.

But the cloud hasn't dissipated, and Republican Ron DeSantis didn't make it past his first post-primary win interview before tearing into Gillum and suggesting the Tallahassee mayor was corrupt. Over time, the race has taken on a tenor eerily similar to the 2016 presidential campaign, with shouts of "Lock him up!" reportedly peppering DeSantis events Sunday.

Gillum has spent just about his entire general election campaign fending off questions about his travels and contact with a mysterious businessman named "Mike Miller." After the Tallahassee Democrat reported on a trip to Costa Rica with friends who'd received $2.1 million in public funds for a Tallahassee restaurant in 2013, Gillum voluntarily disclosed airfare and bank statements. In September, he showed a $400 withdrawal to support his story that he paid for his own plane tickets and took out cash to pay for his $941.95 share of a luxury villa that Corey's lobbying firm had rented in Costa Rica. And he provided a New York hotel invoice made out to the Open Society Foundation to support his story that he first traveled to New York on private business for his job with People for the American Way.

Gillum said that he learned after the New York trip that his younger brother, who'd made the trip to New York with Corey, paid for his pass to the popular musical "Hamilton" by swapping a Jay Z concert ticket with Corey. He'd previously told The Democrat that either "Mike Miller" or "Mike Sweets," businessmen now believed to have been undercover FBI agents, told him a boat they took to the Statue of Liberty was a friend's, so he assumed it was cost-free.

Then this week, only days away from an election that could make Gillum one of the biggest stars in U.S. politics, Corey began releasing scores of text messages and emails detailing efforts to arrange trips around the world with Gillum and their time spent together in Manhattan and abroad.

Though much of what was in the the documents has already been reported by The Democrat, the emails and texts contained revelations, including texts that proved that Miller, the undercover FBI agent, did indeed purchase Gillum's "Hamilton" ticket and the hotel room where he stayed afterward (even if it didn't touch on whether Gillum or his brother reimbursed anyone).

The documents also included details of a trip to Qatar, where Gillum invited Corey after agreeing to appear at a UCLA conference in the capital city of Doha. Gillum and Corey also made a stop in Dubai, and the mayor was copied and mentioned on emails about meet-ups between Corey and Richard Smotkin, the Comcast lobbyist who drew media attention earlier this year after it emerged he had helped organize a $100,000 trip to Morocco for former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The documents also reflected efforts to organize an April 2016 fundraiser at Corey's Tallahassee apartment to benefit Forward Florida, a newly created political committee that has since raised $32 million toward Gillum's gubernatorial run. Corey invoiced Miller $4,300 for a catering bill afterward.
In the fallout, Gillum has stuck by his explanations about how he paid for his New York trip and what he knew — or didn't know — about the FBI's involvement at the time. His campaign says the attorney releasing Corey's communications to the public is a Republican operative disguised as a defense attorney.

But they haven't given responses to some unanswered questions, including:

  • Why Gillum’s campaign has no record of any expenses for the April 11, 2016, Forward Florida fundraiser at Corey’s house, and why Gillum would write a “personal note” to Miller if he paid for nothing.
  • Whether Smotkin purchased anything for Gillum during his stay in Doha
  • Why Gillum has said he felt like Corey manipulated him into meeting with undercover agents digging for dirt, when records showed he relied on the lobbyist to arrange meetings and at times asked him to make connections.

Gillum's campaign has declined over the past week and again this weekend to clarify these issues, which were placed in writing and emailed to his campaign. In lieu of answers, his campaign issued a statement blasting Corey's attorney, Chris Kise, for trying to "smear and distort Mayor Gillum's record in the closing days of this race." They complained that voters are hearing about "Republican-led attacks" instead of policy-driven discussions around healthcare, guns and education.

Gillum, however, did agree to a quick interview on his tour bus, during which he insisted he'd turned over every record he could find related to his travels and referred to articles about these issues as "sensational." He said Floridians "could care less where I traveled, who I traveled with and what I said and what picture I took."

"What I want them to have certainty around are my ethics," he said. "There has yet to be a finding of ethical violation of me and certainly nothing criminal. And I've asked people to measure me off of what my 15 years of service have been."

To some extent, Gillum may be stuck in a he-said-they-said with Corey and Kise. He says he paid cash for the Costa Rica trip and several others arranged by Corey, but Kise says that's not true. Gillum's campaign says Miller didn't pay for his April fundraiser, and the released emails don't include any documentation of payment (even though Corey emailed the committee's finance consultant after the event about Miller "co-sponsoring the food.")

Gillum, in a taped interview with NBC Miami's Jackie Nespral that ran Sunday, said he claimed vindication after the documents were released because they proved his explanations that he was in New York on work, met up with Corey in the evening and got his "Hamilton" ticket from his brother.

"While those text messages may seem new to everybody, I've given my testimony to the ethics commission. I've known about all of these all along. My story hasn't changed one time," he said. "When you tell the truth you don't have to change your testimony."

Still, Gillum has had to continue to field questions about his trips with Corey and his interactions with Miller in part because there remain unanswered questions. And while he's never changed his story, he has slowly released details over time, leading to a dribble of news that has stuck with him throughout the campaign.

The controversy is sure to hang with Gillum until Election Day and beyond, whether he wins or loses. What's unclear is whether more will come from Corey, and whether voters will see the whole fiasco as an indictment on Gillum's character or a non-story about cocktails and show tickets.

"What I get from people is they say, 'I'm so sick of these people crapping on you over nothing.' For so many people, this is not about a Broadway show, it's about a sideshow," he said Saturday on his tour bus. "It's just an interesting way in which people are reporting on this that has caused, quite frankly, a lot of people in our base to push back strongly by going to the ballot box."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Elizabeth Koh and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.