The political committee for Andrew Gillum spent $240,000 on lawyers last month, a substantial rise in the organization’s legal expenses that coincides with a far-reaching federal investigation involving the former nominee for governor.
Forward Florida had already spent $25,000 on legal fees every month since March, when the U.S. Attorney’s office in north Florida started dropping subpoenas that demanded information on Gillum, the Democrat’s campaign, his political committee, a wealthy donor, a charity that employed him and a former employer.
Those expenses have increased tenfold, according to November’s campaign finance report reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. The escalating legal bills reflects the costs of complying with a sprawling federal grand jury subpoena issued to Forward Florida earlier this year, Gillum’s political committee acknowledged.
“Forward Florida has always been run in accordance with the law,” committee spokesman Joshua Karp said. “We’re fully complying with the review of our activity last year, and we are confident that the facts will show the committee always operated honestly.”
The November report also shows Forward Florida has hired the services of Marc Elias, one the country’s preeminent election attorneys. The committee already had powerhouse Florida law firm Stearns Weaver Miller on retainer.
Forward Florida paid Stearns Weaver Miller $193,000 and Elias’ firm, Perkins Coie, $48,106 in November, according to the report. The payments more than double what Forward Florida has spent on legal bills this year, which was already substantially higher than what it spent during Gillum’s unsuccessful campaign for governor.
The bills have become more expensive because of the cost to track down and review documents needed to comply with an extensive subpoena that requests information dating back several years.
While a subpoena was issued to Gillum’s political committee, Elias told the Times that the federal government has not issued a subpoena directly to Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee. Authorities also have not interviewed Gillum or requested any testimony on this matter.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Florida’s Northern District has not explained what they’re looking for but Gillum’s team does not believe he is a target of the investigation.
“In my experience, this is the kind of inquiry campaigns often receive once an election is over,” Elias said. “I am confident that Forward Florida and Mayor Gillum have complied with the law and that the facts will bear that out.”
Elias could not quantify the volume of what Forward Florida has turned over to federal prosecutors but said, “We are continuing to cooperate with the government to ensure that they have all of the documents they have requested."
It is unclear whether the federal grand jury is the same that has reviewed evidence and indicted three individuals in a Tallahassee corruption probe, or if this represents an entirely new line of inquiry.
Prior to 2019, federal authorities were focused on corruption inside Tallahassee’s government, including during Gillum’s time as mayor. Gillum once said of the investigation: "Twenty-plus subpoenas have been issued and not one of them has anything to do with me.”
That changed this year. The Times reported in May that the U.S. Attorney had issued a federal grand jury subpoena demanding “documents, electronically stored information, or objects” dating back to January 2015 about Gillum, his 2018 gubernatorial campaign and his political committee, Forward Florida.
The subpoena also requested information on several people and organizations close to Gillum, including longtime adviser and friend Sharon Lettman-Hicks, donor Donald Sussman and the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a Massachusetts nonprofit where Gillum once served as a board member.
Forward Florida had about $3 million on the day Gillum lost his election to now-Gov. Ron DeSantis, and some Democratic donors, like Orlando attorney John Morgan, questioned why money was left in the bank in a race ultimately decided by less than 33,000 votes.
Amid those criticisms, Gillum vowed to use the leftover sum to bankroll a new political movement for turning Florida blue. He recently gave the state Democratic Party $150,000 to compete in state House races and he has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into his new organization, Florida Forward Action, dedicated to getting more people to vote.
However, Forward Florida’s legal bills have pulled nearly half a million dollars from Gillum’s goals, with the expectation that there will be more expenses. Gillum has not said much about the investigation since the Times initial report in May, though at a June gathering of Florida Democrats he acknowledged it was a “distraction" from his efforts to register and reengage with 1 million voters.
“But as I’ve told our people we ran an open and an honest campaign, and I stand by the work that we did there,” Gillum told reporters then. “I’m pretty well convinced that regardless of what happens with that inquiry, we’re going to hit our mark.”