State Politics

Why did the Feds subpoena information on Andrew Gillum and his campaign for governor?

Andrew Gillum concedes Florida governor’s race to Ron DeSantis

After a tight race, Andrew Gillum concedes the Florida governor's race to Republican Ron DeSantis.
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After a tight race, Andrew Gillum concedes the Florida governor's race to Republican Ron DeSantis.

Andrew Gillum is a focal point of a recently issued federal grand jury subpoena that demands information on the former Democratic candidate for governor, his campaign, his political committee, a wealthy donor, a charity he worked for and a former employer.

The subpoena, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times and previously unreported, could reflect a new level of federal inquiry into Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee who narrowly lost to Republican Ron DeSantis last year.

Throughout his campaign last year, Gillum insisted that he was not a target of a sprawling FBI investigation of Tallahassee city hall, which has taken at least three years and resulted in three arrests. Last year, he told the Tallahassee Democrat: “Twenty-plus subpoenas have been issued and not one of them has anything to do with me.”

But the recent one does. Previously, the investigation had centered on corruption inside Tallahassee government, including during Gillum’s time as mayor. The newer subpoena is more focused on Gillum’s 2018 campaign and people and organizations with clear ties to Gillum, but with less obvious connections to Tallahassee city hall.

Gillum, now a CNN contributor, declined to answer specific questions about the subpoena or say whether a subpoena was issued to him. In a statement to the Times, Gillum said: “We stand ready to assist any future review of our work, because I am confident we always did the right thing and complied fully with the law.”

“We ran an open and honest campaign. A campaign powered by thousands of volunteers and supporters. A campaign that captured imaginations and earned over four million votes,” Gillum said. “When you run a campaign that puts the power in the hands of the people, and fights for change, it inevitably invites close scrutiny, regardless of the facts.”

As a policy, the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not confirm or deny the existence of a matter before a grand jury, or whether a subpoena has been issued, the agency’s press office said.

If someone is named in a subpoena, it does not mean the individuals and entities are under investigation. Rather, subpoenas are a tool for prosecutors to gather information that they could later present as evidence to a grand jury.

Issued in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee, the subpoena demands “documents, electronically stored information, or objects” dating back to January 2015 about Gillum, his 2018 gubernatorial campaign and his political committee, Forward Florida. It requests documents be turned over at either a Tallahassee courthouse or to the FBI by May 7.

The subpoena also demands information on:

John H. Jackson, the president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. Gillum was listed as a board member on the nonprofit’s website until March 2017. Also on the subpoena is a related organization, Opportunity to Learn Action Fund. Gillum was president of that nonprofit as recently as 2017, according to its tax documents.

Donald Sussman, an investor and philanthropist who donated $1.5 million to Gillum’s bid for governor. Harris Parnell, a donor adviser who has worked for Sussman, is also named.

Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a longtime friend and adviser to Gillum who is currently the CEO of the National Black Justice Commission, a black LGBTQ advocacy group. She served with Gillum on the board of the Schott Foundation. Her public relations firm, P&P Communications, is also listed in the subpoena.

Little has been reported about Gillum’s work for the Schott Foundation for Public Education. It is a well-regarded charity that focuses on racial and economic justice through education equality, especially in the Northeast. It has about $10 million in assets and it has distributed millions of dollars in grants to education organizations around the country.

Gillum, who campaigned on a platform of raising teacher pay and investing $1 billion in public schools, didn’t draw attention to the years he served on the board of an education charity. He declined to say what years he served but he is listed on the Schott Foundation’s tax records as a board member from as early as 2013 to 2017.

Jackson, its president, is the former National Director of Education and Chief Policy Officer for the NAACP and has served as the Schott Foundation’s leader since 2007. Jackson posted a glowing congratulatory letter about Gillum on the foundation’s website after the Democratic primary.

“I’ve known Andrew Gillum for close to two decades, as a friend, staunch advocate for an opportunity to learn for all students and ultimately as a colleague as a member of the Schott Foundation Board of Directors,” Jackson wrote. “All of us at Schott are proud of what our colleague and friend has accomplished, and can’t wait to see what Andrew Gillum, Florida voters and the growing movement for public education in Florida achieve next.”

When asked about the subpoena, Jackson declined to comment through his lawyer, Ron Meyer of Tallahassee.

Opportunity to Learn Action Fund is a separate, much smaller entity controlled by the Schott Foundation. Gillum was the president from as early as 2014 until at least 2017, according to publicly available tax documents, when the organization reported expenses ranging from $50,000 to $125,000. He did not take a salary.

Unlike the Schott Foundation and other traditional charities, Opportunity to Learn is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, meaning up to 50 percent of its expenses can go toward political purposes. Its mission, according to tax documents, is “promoting improvement in America’s public education systems and advocating for educational policy reforms.”

Lettman-Hicks, who is a close friend and mentor to Gillum since his days at Florida A&M University, remains listed as a board member for the Schott Foundation on the organization’s website.

In a brief phone conversation Tuesday, Lettman-Hicks acknowledged she served on Schott Foundation’s board but said about the subpoena: “I’m not at liberty to discuss that.” She declined to say whether she spoke with authorities or was asked to turn over documents.

“You’re asking me some deep information,” she said. “If you’d like to send it to me, I can have a point of reference of what you’re talking about. But I can’t be of further assistance sight unseen.” She then hung up.

Gillum’s relationship with Lettman-Hicks was a point of controversy during last year’s governor race. Gillum reported income in 2017 of $71,000 from Lettman-Hicks’ firm on a state financial disclosure report. Meanwhile, his campaign rented space from her Tallahassee public relations firm, P&P Communications, at a cost of nearly $45,000.

Gillum has repeatedly dodged questions about his work for Lettman-Hicks, which started soon after he left his job at the People For the American Way. In one interview with the Huffington Post, he declined to name his clients. Lettman-Hicks later told a Tallahassee Democrat reporter that she was Gillum’s only client.

It is unclear what connection, if any, exists between these nonprofits and Donald Sussman. The Connecticut financier donated $1 million to Forward Florida two days after Gillum became the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor and he followed it up with another $500,000 check in October. Sussman was previously a large contributor to Democratic causes in Maine and donated $21 million to a super PAC supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

Sussman did not respond to a message left for him at his investment firm, Paloma Partners. Attempts to reach Harris Parnell were unsuccessful.

FBI investigators first arrived in Tallahassee in August 2015. The undercover operation has led to the arrest of three individuals: suspended city commissioner Scott Maddox, his former chief of staff Paige Carter-Smith and businessman J.T. Burnette. A superseding indictment of the three made public earlier this month lists 47 charges, and it alleges Burnette was the middleman in a shake down and bribery scheme that netted Maddox and Carter-Smith hundreds of thousands of dollars.

During that investigation, FBI agents posing as a developer met Gillum and a friend, lobbyist Adam Corey, in New York City, where they took a now-infamous boat ride around New York Harbor and attended the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.” A trove of records released two weeks before the election allegedly showed that FBI agents paid for Gillum’s hotel room and his ticket to the musical.

There does not seem to be much connection between the players in that probe and this recent subpoena — except for Gillum. The previously reported investigation focused on city business and contracts with developers; the newer subpoena centers on people and entities in Gillum’s political and professional orbit.

Grand juries do not determine guilt or innocence, only whether there’s probable cause to believe someone committed a crime. Federal grand jury proceedings are typically secret and closely guarded, but witnesses can disclose they have been summoned, unless explicitly prohibited. Many choose not to.

It is unclear whether the federal grand jury is the same that has reviewed evidence and indicted the three individuals in the Tallahassee corruption probe.

Gillum has not been charged with any crime. In January, the Florida Commission on Ethics unanimously found probable cause that Gillum, while Tallahassee mayor, violated state ethics laws by accepting gifts from Corey and the undercover FBI agents. Gillum reached a settlement agreement with a commission lawyer in April to pay a $5,000 fine in exchange for dropping four of the five ethics violation charges.

Gillum has sought to move on from the cloud of the investigation and get on with his political career. Through his political committee Forward Florida, he is leading an effort to recruit 1 million more Democrats to vote in the 2020 election.

In an interview with the Times on May 16, Gillum said of the FBI investigation: “I’m not waiting for any shoes to drop.”

“I do hope that whatever the FBI is up to that they bring it to a speedy conclusion,” Gillum said then. “I think that would be in the best interest of my city, but also for the individuals involved.”

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.
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