BY Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum agreed Wednesday to pay a $5,000 fine in a settlement reached with a state ethics-commission attorney, who agreed to drop four of five charges of ethics violations related to trips to Costa Rica and New York, a boat ride around the Statue of Liberty and a ticket to the Broadway hit, “Hamilton.”
Nearly two hours after a hearing on the alleged ethics violations was supposed to begin Wednesday morning, the Florida Commission on Ethics’ advocate, Elizabeth A. Miller, told Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early that she and Gillum’s lawyer, Barry Richard, had reached an “amicable settlement agreement.”
“Obviously, this has taken a lot of time and energy from my wife, myself, our family. Obviously, all of this happening in the context of a statewide election didn’t make it any easier. We came prepared today to say fully what our experience has been and what the truth of the matter is,” Gillum, accompanied by his wife, R. Jai, told reporters.
In January, the ethics commission unanimously found probable cause that Gillum, as Tallahassee mayor, violated state ethics laws for allegedly accepting gifts from Tallahassee entrepreneur Adam Corey and undercover FBI agents posing as developers. Corey had been a close friend of Gillum and lobbied city officials.
The commission found probable cause that Gillum accepted gifts with a value of more than $100 from a lobbyist or vendor of the city and failed to report the gifts.
The accusations against Gillum became a theme for now-Gov. Ron DeSantis during a heated campaign leading to November’s election, in which the Republican narrowly edged out the former mayor. The race drew a national spotlight, in part, because of Gillum’s attempt to become the state’s first black governor.
Speaking to reporters following the brief court session Wednesday morning, Richard stressed that Gillum did not request the settlement but had entered into negotiations with Miller at the judge’s behest.
Richard said the settlement doesn’t specify which of the gifts Gillum agreed to have accepted, “but from Mayor Gillum’s standpoint it was the boat ride around the Statue of Liberty that he took with people that were his friends and it just didn’t occur to him that one of them was also a lobbyist and that he wasn’t supposed to accept the gifts.”
Later Wednesday, Gillum issued a statement describing the end of the case as “vindication. The results confirm what I’ve said all along — the facts matter and I never knowingly violated any ethics laws.”
In brief remarks to Early, Miller did not elaborate on what prompted the settlement. But the attorney’s case hinged on an elusive Corey, who was involved in the New York and Costa Rica trips.
Gilllum said he paid Corey — who made the arrangements for a luxury villa — $480 in cash, or $120 per night, to cover his and his wife’s share of the Costa Rica trip. Corey, who submitted an affidavit to the ethics commission but refused to appear before the panel because he had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in a city corruption probe, swore that he never received any money from his onetime pal.
But Corey has been out of the country, and efforts to get him to testify in the administrative-law case were unsuccessful, according to documents filed in the case. Miller asked Early to postpone the hearing until August because Corey’s lawyer, Chris Kise, had a “serious cardiac condition” that left him temporarily unable to work.
After Early refused to put the hearing off, Miller asked the judge to allow the record in the case to remain open after the hearing, writing that Corey is willing to testify after he returns to the country on Aug. 5 or Aug. 6. Early said he would reserve a ruling in that request until after the hearing.
While Corey was on Miller’s witness list for the hearing that was scheduled to last up to three days, it is unknown whether he is back in the country or would have appeared in court.
It is also unclear whether undercover FBI agents known as “Mike Sweets” would have appeared, although Early ordered that the agent could come into the courtroom through a private entrance, remain in disguise and testify in secret in a courtroom closed off to the public.
Richard said he could not say what prompted Miller to propose the settlement, but he gave details to reporters about evidence that contradicted charges that Gillum had accepted gifts involving a hotel room in New York City and a meal in Costa Rica, among other things.
“These are the types of things… that I believe that if the commission had known about at the time, they probably would not have found probable cause. And that’s one of the reasons that we have a settlement today. We learned things. The advocate learned things. I learned things that nobody knew at the time of the probable cause hearing. I think that Andrew Gillum knew that he hadn’t done these things, but nobody else did,” Richard said.
Gillum has steadfastly maintained his innocence and said Wednesday that he had been prepared to “vigorously defend” himself against the ethics charges.
The settlement agreement “keeps intact what I have said all along,” Gillum, now a commentator for CNN, said.
“But, as any adult, when you learn more information you have to step up and take responsibility for what it is that you come to know,” said Gillum, who last month launched a voter registration effort in Florida, aimed at denying President Donald Trump a second term in office.
“I will tell you we are thankful for where we are today, and quite frankly, I am more than excited now to move on to the work that we’ve got for ourselves and that is, we’ve got to get a million new voters registered throughout the state of Florida. I am going to move very swiftly to get to that work soon,” he said.