Old friends, and a grand jury inquiry, follow Andrew Gillum into private business

The Democrat’s new consulting company includes three close friends who bring their own baggage.
Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum gives a campaign speech at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Thursday, October 25, 2018. 
[OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times ]
Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum gives a campaign speech at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Thursday, October 25, 2018. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published June 7, 2019|Updated June 7, 2019

Andrew Gillum started a business earlier this year with the same political adviser now embroiled with the former Democratic nominee for governor in an expansive federal investigation.

Sharon Lettman-Hicks is part of CJD Group, LLC., a consultant company Gillum registered Jan. 25. Two months later, federal authorities demanded records on Gillum and Lettman-Hicks in a grand jury subpoena that included several other entities related to the two long-time friends.

Gillum’s business launched after 15 years as an elected official in Tallahassee, the last few clouded by an FBI probe into city hall and capped by an agonizing defeat in November to Republican Ron DeSantis.

Yet rather than a fresh start with a new business, the subpoena is another example of how Gillum has been unable to escape the tentacles of a federal probe that dogged his gubernatorial campaign and now threatens his future political aspirations.

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Lettman-Hicks is one of three friends involved in CJD Group, LLC. She is listed as an “authorized member” on state registration documents. So is Christopher Chestnut, a childhood pal whose family is central to Gillum’s political backstory.

Chestnut was recently disbarred in Florida and is going through a bankruptcy in Georgia.

The other friend is Sean Pittman, a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist, whose firm is the registered agent for CJD Group. Pittman was with Gillum on a 2016 trip to Costa Rica arranged by Tallahassee lobbyist Adam Corey that would later become a politically damaging piece of a Florida Commission on Ethics investigation into Gillum. They, along with their wives, stayed in a luxury villa on the Pacific Ocean.

On Friday, the commission voted 5-2 to approve a settlement with Gillum to drop four of the five charges in exchange for a $5,000 fine.

Gillum shrugged off concern about these associations hampering his new venture. He described the roles of Chestnut and Lettman-Hicks as unpaid advisory board members. In a statement to the Times, he said he is “pleased to continue to receive the advice of long-time friends who are professionals with decades-long distinguished careers of their own.”

As Gillum became the face of Florida Democrats, Lettman-Hicks, a leading black LGBTQ advocate who ran his first campaign for Tallahassee city commissioner, has become more influential, too. Lettman-Hicks is heading Gillum’s statewide push to register more Democrats by 2020. Since taking over that effort, she has become the state party’s highest-paid employee this year, according to campaign finance records.

Lettman-Hicks did not respond to a request for comment. In a lengthy June 1 Facebook post, she alleged that the recent subpoena, first reported by the Times, was racially motivated. She said she is a “pawn being used by the oppressor” to take down Gillum.

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CJD Group quietly debuted as Gillum’s post-election schedule busied with CNN appearances, lectures at Harvard and the kickoff of a new political movement to turn Florida blue. Unlike those high-profile commitments, this one was unannounced.

The company’s names come from the initials of Gillum’s three children. His wife, R. Jai Gillum, is also listed on the business.

It is not a lobbying firm, a career path chosen by past failed candidates for governor, including Republican Bill McCollum, nor is he working for Florida’s white collar club, like Democrat Alex Sink, who joined Hyde Park Capital after her 2010 loss.

Rather, Gillum described the new venture as a leadership consultancy with a focus on candidate training, field organizing and ballot initiatives.

“I built up a bit of an expertise there,” Gillum said in an interview last month. “And I’m looking forward to now building a private business out of that.”

The last time Gillum reported earning money in the private sector, it was for Lettman-Hicks. Gillum made $71,000 in 2017 working for Lettman-Hicks’ public relations firm P&P Communications.

That company is also a part of the federal investigation into Gillum’s circle, according to the subpoena.

His employment there was a point of controversy during the race. Gillum declined to say the nature of his work for Lettman-Hicks. And while P&P Communications paid Gillum, his campaign rented space in the company’s office and paid $45,000 for rent, according to campaign finance reports.

There’s a larger pattern of Gillum moving his enterprises into buildings owned by friends and political allies. He moved his campaign headquarters from Lettman-Hicks’ building to a donor’s property later in the race.

That trend continued with his new company. The address of Gillum’s new corporation is a 2,400-square foot office on East Park Avenue in Tallahassee. That’s also the address of Pittman Law Group.

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Soon after he launched the company on Jan. 25, Gillum began sending Pittman Law Group $10,000 a month through his political committee, Forward Florida. He also donated $5,000 to a charity run by Pittman. Through April, Pittman Law Group was one of Forward Florida’s top vendors.

Gillum said he paid Pittman to provide political advice during the recent legislative session, and it had nothing to do with his new business.

“You want to be in relationship with people who do work that are real high quality,” Gillum said. “I consider Pittman Law Group to be of high quality and I’m not the only one.” (Pittman represents large clients like Florida Power & Light and Florida Crystals, a sugar conglomerate.)

Pittman Law Group donated $48,500 to Forward Florida during the campaign. Meanwhile, Gillum’s political committee and his campaign spent $1.7 million at businesses owned by Pittman.

Pittman did not respond to multiple messages left for him at his law firm.

If Gillum knew that the FBI was inquiring about him and Lettman-Hicks when he created the company, he wouldn’t say.

On Thursday, Gillum for the first time directly addressed the federal subpoena at a Democratic Party event in Atlanta.

“I’m not sure what’s at the core of it and we’ll participate in the process,” Gillum told a moderator, “but it is not going to deter us from our mission.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.