Florida Politics

State Ethics Commission fines Gillum, drops most charges

The Florida Commission on Ethics fined former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum $5,000 Friday for accepting the gift of a boat ride around the Statue of Liberty, ending an ethics saga that had plagued Gillum for more than a year in his failed attempt to become Florida governor.

The seven-member commission voted 5-2 on a voice vote to approve a settlement reached with the state ethics commission’s attorney, who agreed to drop four more serious charges related to trips to Costa Rica and New York and a ticket to the Broadway hit, “Hamilton.”

Gillum was not present for the vote.

Tallahassee businessman Erwin Jackson, a longtime critic of the former mayor, filed a complaint last year accusing Gillum of accepting gifts above the state’s $100 limit in 2016. Florida law prohibits public officials from accepting gifts over $100 from lobbyists, though family members have exceptions.

State officials then found probable cause on five of six counts that Gillum accepted gifts during those trips. In a report, the commission’s advocate had contended that Gillum accepted gifts and “things of value” when he knew or should have known they were meant to influence what he did, and that there was probable cause that Gillum accepted gifts on those trips knowing or “reasonably believ[ing]” they exceeded the state’s ethics limits.

Gillum’s attorney, Barry Richard, said the former mayor and Democratic candidate for governor agreed to failing to report the boat trip around the Statue of Liberty with Adam Corey, whom he considered a friend, but that the commission did not have the evidence to prove the other allegations.

“Mayor Gillum had said before the hearing that he shouldn’t have done it,’’ Richard said after the hearing. “He didn’t realize that Corey was a registered lobbyist because Corey wasn’t lobbying him. Corey had been a friend of his for years but, in his opinion, he should have reported it.”

Gillum said when the settlement was reached that the evidence showed the actual cost of the boat ride was $85 and cast the fine as “vindication” against claims that he is involved in the public corruption allegations being investigated by the FBI involving Corey.

“The results confirm what I’ve said all along — the facts matter and I never knowingly violated any ethics laws,’’ Gillum said at the time..

But Ethics Commissioner Joanne Leznoff, a Republican from Tallahassee, voted against the settlement because, she said, although “it’s hard to prove quid pro quo,” Gillum admitted to violating state ethics laws on the same day he said in a statement that he had been “vindicated.”

To Leznoff, that was a sign the “agreement [was] not entered in good faith” because he claimed “he did not knowingly violate state ethics laws when he had, just that day, admitted that he had.”

Richard said “vindication means a lot of things. When you’re charged with five things, most of which are very serious, and the state drops four of them except the only one left is not very serious, then I would consider that a vindication.”

Also voting against approving the settlement was Commissioner Kimberly Bonder Rezanka, a Republican from Cocoa, who said she considered the fine too small.

Richard said after the hearing that the state’s lawyers had “ vigorously litigated” the claims but, “the reason that the fine was what it was, is because they didn’t feel like their case was that strong and they were not prepared to go to trial on it. That’s how settlements happen.”

Elizabeth Miller, the ethics commission attorney who negotiated the settlement just before it was to go to trial before an administrative law judge, told the panel Friday that there was “insufficient evidence” to pursue all the allegations and described the negotiations as “intense.”

The accusations against Gillum came amid an ongoing FBI investigation into public corruption in Tallahassee and were the subject of recurring attacks from now Gov. Ron DeSantis during the heated gubernatorial campaign last year. DeSantis, a Republican, narrowly defeated Gillum, who was attempting to become the state’s first black governor.

DeSantis hammered Gillum about his involvement with Corey, who was present on both the New York and Costa Rica trips. In Costa Rica, Gillum and his wife stayed at a villa with several friends including Corey and political confidant Sean Pittman, and Corey allegedly sent Gillum an invite to meet with “Mike Miller,” an undercover FBI agent posing as an Atlanta developer.

Corey was also around during a trip Gillum took to New York City in 2016 as part of his job with the People for the American Way Foundation. During that trip, both Corey and Gillum spent time with Gillum’s brother Marcus, Miller and another undercover agent associated with the case.

Gillum eventually cut ties with Corey and said after the lobbyist became a nexus in the FBI probe that he had been misled.

Gillum said he had been told by the FBI that he was not a subject of the investigation, and shared records during the general campaign season that he said were payments for some of his own expenses on the trips. For expenses that had no records, Gillum said he swapped tickets with his brother to pay him back for the “Hamilton” ticket, and that he was told the boat for the harbor tour was borrowed and did not incur a cost.

But shortly before the election, Corey’s lawyer, Chris Kise, released hundreds of pages of records relating to the case, which showed that the undercover agents had looked deeply into Gillum, arranging some of the excursions on the New York trip and getting the “Hamilton” tickets.

The FBI case led to the indictment of former city commissioner Scott Maddox on bribery and racketeering charges last year; no charges have been brought against Gillum.

Since the election, the FBI has opened an investigation into the handing of Gillum’s campaign finances and relationships with some of his largest donors. Richard said a subpoena had been issued seeking information but he said he has not seen it, and would not confirm who received it, and Richard is not serving as Gillum’s lawyer on that case.

“I’m a legal adviser to Mayor Gillum, he asks me about a lot of things,’’ he said. “He informed me of the fact a subpoena had been served on somebody and we had a brief conversation about it. I told him there was nothing to do because the FBI doesn’t tell you anything -- other than for whoever gets subpoenas to respond to the subpoenas.”

The federal subpoena obtained by the Tampa Bay Times requests records going back to Gillum’s first year as mayor, and encompasses his campaign and work with a Massachusetts nonprofit. It also asks for documents and records involving a wealthy investor who contributed to Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign and Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a longtime adviser to Gillum whose public relations firm is also part of the subpoena request.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas
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