Just how close will an FBI corruption probe come to Gillum?

It’s pretty darned close already, as Andrew Gillum himself noted two months before Florida Democrats high-fived themselves this week for nominating the full-throated progressive to contend in the gubernatorial contest in November. They may have to switch those to facepalms if Republican nominee Ron DeSantis makes corruption in Gillum’s mayoral tenure in Tallahassee a campaign issue. As Allahpundit noted yesterday in passing, the FBI has spent three years investigating Tallahassee city government for corruption, although so far it’s not clear that Gillum himself is a target.

Gillum says he’s not, but in an interview two months ago with the Washington Post, Gillum acknowledged that the FBI’s interest has reached far into city governance:

“I have zero tolerance for corruption and inappropriate or illegal behavior, and the last several months there appears to be an FBI investigation into something we thought was writ large in our government, the CRA, which I am chair of,” Gillum said during a six-minute conversation on the subject.

But an FBI search warrant released publicly by accident in February was “fairly telling,” he said. The search warrant names [commissioner Scott] Maddox and Downtown Improvement Authority Executive Director Paige-Carter Smith, his former chief of staff, and Governance, the consulting firm Maddox founded but sold to Carter-Smith.

The search warrant detailed an alleged bribery scheme involving Carter-Smith, Maddox and Governance. In it, the FBI alleged Maddox took official acts to benefit clients of Governance in exchange for payments.

“We pulled that document down and it showed at least an accusation of one of my colleagues having taken money potentially in exchange for a set of votes on something that came before the commission,” Gillum said. “This is the government’s argument and we have yet to hear the other side of the argument and he is entitled to that.”

That doesn’t exactly sound like “zero tolerance,” especially three years into the investigation. So far the FBI has remained rather close-lipped about the probe but the subpoenas that have leaked don’t show Gillum as one of the targets — yet. That’s not to say that the FBI hasn’t tried to get Gillum in line for prosecution. According to the Tallahassee Democrat’s reporting last year, investigators offered a few enticements on a 2017 trip to New York, and Gillum still hasn’t said whether they worked:

The FBI may have tried to entice Mayor Andrew Gillum through one of his close friends to see a Broadway show, catch a Mets game and stay at a hotel in New York City as part of its investigation into alleged public corruption in Tallahassee.

Gillum, who had room reservations elsewhere, won’t say if he stayed at or visited the Millennium Hotel in downtown Manhattan, where an FBI agent posing as a developer had arranged rooms for him and others. He also won’t say if he attended the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton” or went to the baseball game.

Gillum’s responses to the Tallahassee Democrat on the trip have evolved over the past week. Acting on information from sources close to the investigation, the Democrat asked Gillum on Aug. 19 about the “Hamilton” show and Mets game and specifically who paid for the tickets.

“I have no knowledge of any of that,” Gillum replied.

Gillum since has refused to give a yes or no answer on whether he took part in any of the outings, claiming that his time spent with undercover FBI agents was “personal.”

The newspaper noted that Gillum had not reported any gifts during the trip as he would have been required to do. The statute governing such reporting specifically includes lodging and tickets to entertainment venues that have a value over $100, which in New York City would be all but the seediest hotels. Perhaps he didn’t receive any such gifts, but if that’s the case, why not just say so?

For now, however, the FBI hasn’t painted a public target on Gillum’s back, and his Democratic primary opponents didn’t either. That will change in the next two months, Politico’s Arek Sarkissian notes, as Ron DeSantis will make Gillum’s record as mayor a key part of his attack strategy — and not just on this FBI probe:

Two political strategists said the FBI investigation is just some of the weaponry DeSantis will use against Gillum, and his chances of survival depend on how he fights back. Fort Lauderdale pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio, a Republican, said Gillum should also expect heat for reports of Tallahassee’s high crime ranking and city overspending.

“Either of those three things could be a knockout punch for him,” Fabrizio said. “If I were them, I would ask how you go after DeSantis.”

Tallahassee pollster and Democrat strategist Steve Vancore said Gillum’s primary opponents did not use the FBI investigation, but choosing to ignore it could easily leave a powder keg left to explode.

“They’ve got hundreds of headlines and quotes from stories — there’s no shortage of weaponry for DeSantis to choose from,” Vancore said. “It doesn’t matter if Gillum was never named, DeSantis is still going to weaponize it.”

With this as background, it’s no small wonder that the Gillum campaign wants to keep the focus on DeSantis’ macaca moment this week. It gives them the ability to pre-empt any attacks on Gillum’s record and his potential involvement in the CRA corruption as part of a racial animus, although that would necessarily force Democrats to attack the FBI for political animus too — an unwitting echo of Donald Trump’s accusations. It’s a tightrope, and it’s not at all clear that Gillum will be able to walk it. The best he can hope is that DeSantis continues to provide distractions from it over the next two months rather than force the media to focus on corruption allegations.

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David Strom 12:31 PM on December 07, 2022