Five years ago, Andrew Gillum was one of the brightest stars in Florida politics.
The then-Tallahassee mayor had a national profile. He won the 2018 Democratic nomination for Florida governor. And he nearly defeated Ron DeSantis, losing by fewer than 34,000 votes, or 0.41 percentage points.
Then came the fall.
In 2020, he was found by police in a South Beach hotel room in the company of a man who appeared to have overdosed on drugs.
And last year, he was indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of lying to FBI agents and defrauding campaign mega donors and organizations that believed they were donating to legitimate political causes.
Gillum, 43, and his political adviser and mentor, Sharon Janet Lettman-Hicks, 54, are facing a three-week trial in federal court in Tallahassee that starts Monday.
The jury trial should provide an unusual glimpse into a federal political corruption investigation, featuring potentially hours of secret recordings involving Gillum and his brother, Marcus, and testimony from undercover FBI agents.
Gillum has denied the allegations against him. But the federal corruption probe that led to charges against Gillum has already led to convictions against another former Tallahassee mayor and a local developer.
“This is our chance to show Andrew’s innocence, and we’re looking forward to it,” said his attorney, David O. Markus of Miami, this week.
What is Gillum accused of?
The government accuses Gillum of soliciting political contributions under false pretenses, routing the money through Lettman-Hicks’ communications company, and then distributing the money to Gillum.
The day after he lost the 2018 election, for example, Gillum emailed his campaign staff and said he was assigning Lettman-Hicks to oversee the campaign budgets.
The campaign then transferred $60,000 to Lettman-Hicks’ communications company, called P&P Communications, for expenses relating to get-out-the-vote efforts, federal prosecutors allege. P&P Communications then made four $5,000 transfers, called “bonuses,” to Gillum’s personal account.
The indictment alleges that nearly $57,000 in campaign and other contributions was illegally steered into Gillum’s personal account.
Gillum is also charged with lying to FBI agents.
During the FBI’s sprawling public corruption investigation in Tallahassee, undercover agents posing as developers paid for parts of a 2016 trip Gillum and his brother took to New York City. The indictment alleges agents paid for his room at the Millennium Hilton hotel, his food and drink, a boat ride around New York Harbor and a ticket to the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.”
When Gillum voluntarily sat down with FBI agents in 2017, he denied ever receiving gifts from the supposed “developers.”
In an unusual move, a federal grand jury on Tuesday issued an updated indictment against Gillum and Lettman-Hicks. The indictment dropped two counts of wire fraud.
In court on Thursday, Markus said it was “outrageous” that the updated indictment was issued less than a week before trial was set to start.
“We had our reasons for doing that,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Milligan replied.
Ultimately, neither Gillum nor Lettman-Hicks asked for the trial to be delayed because of the new indictment.
What kind of punishment is he facing?
Gillum is facing years in federal prison.
The 17 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years, although if he’s convicted, the sentences are likely to be carried out concurrently, not consecutively.
The count of making false statements to the FBI carries a maximum of five years in prison.
How has Gillum responded?
He has pleaded not guilty and accused the investigation of being political.
“There’s been a target on my back ever since I was the mayor of Tallahassee,” he said after he was indicted. “They found nothing then, and I have full confidence that my legal team will prove my innocence now.”
He has denied knowing anything about what Lettman-Hicks was doing with the campaign accounts.
In 2017, he told reporters that his brother, Marcus, gave him the ticket to “Hamilton.”
During a procedural hearing on Thursday, Gillum greeted and shook hands with the two reporters in court. He took an active role in the proceeding, reviewing documents and evidence.
Afterward, he hugged and thanked his mother, who was watching from the gallery.
Who is his co-defendant?
Lettman-Hicks was Gillum’s friend and mentor during his political rise, which followed his childhood growing up in Miami’s Richmond Heights. Gillum is a godparent to her child.
From 2001 to 2009, she was an executive vice president for the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama named her to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
She ran for a seat on the Florida House of Representatives last year, until she ended her campaign following the federal indictment.
She has also pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Who is the judge overseeing the case?
U.S. District Judge Allen C. Winsor, who was chosen for the federal bench by former President Donald Trump in 2018 is presiding.
Under former Attorney General Pam Bondi, Winsor served as Florida’s solicitor general, overseeing the state’s appeals in civil and criminal cases.
Winsor has rejected several of Gillum’s requests in the case, including a request last year that the case be dismissed on political grounds. Winsor wrote that Gillum’s lawyers provided no evidence of discrimination, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Gillum and Lettman-Hicks also asked to be tried separately, but Winsor wrote that their charges were too linked to separate the cases.
©2023 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.