A top strategist named in a federal subpoena targeting the political world of former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum believes there is a coordinated effort to tarnish two of the Democratic Party’s highest-profile black candidates.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a senior adviser to Gillum, drew a link in a private Facebook post over the weekend between reports last week about federal interest in Gillum’s campaign and an ongoing state ethics investigation into the campaign of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
Gillum and Abrams emerged over the summer as rising stars in the Democratic Party en route to narrowly losing their elections. Both are considered top potential candidates to seek office in Republican-led states in 2022.
“Both Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams’ 2018 campaigns were in the spotlight this week with speculation of investigations looming, and this is no coincidence,” Lettman-Hicks wrote Saturday evening. “I happen to be a PAWN being used by the oppressor to raise even more speculation about how an educated, working class Black man could run a phenomenal statewide campaign, become a national phenom, and didn’t resort to backhanded tactics to advance his agenda.”
Lettman-Hicks’ post — first reported by Politico and later obtained by the Miami Herald — is the most detailed and pointed response from anyone in Gillum’s tight inner circle to a federal grand jury subpoena issued months ago but revealed for the first time last week by the Tampa Bay Times. It’s not clear to whom the subpoena was issued, and being named in the subpoena does not mean that a person is under investigation.
Gillum and his team have been reserved in their public comments, issuing only a five-sentence statement last week directly to reporters that vaguely hinted at his belief in political motivations but otherwise expressed his readiness to “assist any future review of our work” and his confidence that his campaign did everything aboveboard.
Lettman-Hicks’ comments also come as Gillum is trying to move forward with an ambitious plan to register or “re-engage” 1 million voters ahead of the 2020 election. Lettman-Hicks is currently on salary at the Florida Democratic Party, where she’s helping to coordinate that effort between the party and Gillum’s Forward Florida political organization.
“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, to see Andrew’s haters resort to smear tactics, targeting Andrew and those close to him to stop OUR grassroots movement to turn Florida BLUE in 2020 and beyond,” she wrote.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Florida did not respond to a request for comment, but as a matter of policy doesn’t discuss grand jury subpoenas.
Lettman-Hicks is hardly the first Florida Democrat to connect the interest in Gillum and Abrams and the subpoenas, which according to reports in Florida and Georgia were issued a few weeks apart.
Abrams’ campaign has criticized subpoenas issued by state ethics investigators in Georgia as politically motivated. And some Democratic activists and donors privately expressed similar beliefs in Florida after reports emerged that Gillum’s campaign and political committee had been named in a federal subpoena along with a charity he once worked for, Lettman-Hicks’ public relations firm and prominent Democratic donor Donald Sussman.
“That’s fair speculation,” Barry Richard, an attorney advising Gillum on the matter, said Wednesday in an interview. “The one thing that is clear is that somebody is trying to undermine his political career and is filing allegations.”
The speculation is likely to linger as Gillum continues to play a significant role in Florida politics. He’s scheduled to host a gathering Friday at the state party’s summer leadership conference in Orlando, and continues to be the most visible Florida Democrat on a national level. Privately some donors are expressing reservations about Gillum’s future given that the former Tallahassee mayor was also dogged during his campaign by an FBI investigation into dealings at City Hall.
Gillum recently settled an ethics case that involved a trip to New York with undercover FBI agents, but consistently denied during his campaign that he was personally under investigation and it was never proven otherwise as indictments and subpoenas were levied against other players. Richard said the recent 2019 subpoena — the first publicly known to name Gillum — is clearly detached from the FBI’s interest in corruption in Tallahassee.
Even so, Richard says Gillum doesn’t know specifically what federal agents are now interested in or why, although it seems clear they’re probing details related to his gubernatorial campaign. They’re also seeking information about Lettman-Hicks, a longtime Gillum mentor going back to his days as a college student at Florida A&M.
Her involvement in the campaign was at times controversial, given that her public relations firm hired Gillum as a consultant after he left his job at the People for the American Way and also received rent payments for a time from his campaign. But Lettman-Hicks was firm Saturday in her belief that she, Gillum and Abrams are being targeted.
“I know my lawyer friends are squirming as they read this,” she wrote after evoking her family’s decision to adopt the surname “Freeman” rather than take a slave master’s name and connecting that point to Gillum’s ongoing efforts. “The FREEdom movement that we are leading is far too important and these attempts to silence and stop us will not succeed.”