TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Andrew Gillum, who engineered a surprising upset victory in Florida's Democratic primary this week, is picking up endorsements, money and plenty of national attention in the aftermath of his win.
But as the Tallahassee mayor mounts his bid to become Florida's first black governor, he is already coming under swift attack from Republican opponents who are trying to use a slow-moving corruption investigation into Tallahassee city government to portray Gillum as untrustworthy.
The investigation broke into the open last summer shortly after Gillum joined the race, but it was not extensively debated or discussed by his Democratic opponents before he won Tuesday's primary. But by Thursday, the Republican Governor's Association launched a digital ad that blasted Gillum. It focused on both the City Hall probe and an earlier incident in which Gillum paid back the city after he used city money to buy software that was used to send out campaign emails. Likewise, the campaign of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who won the GOP primary, is also trying to draw attention to the investigation.
The 39-year-old Gillum — who will appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN"s "State of the Union" this Sunday —contends he is ready for the onslaught of attacks that have just begun to ramp up.
"A lot of people counted us out, they thought we would completely surrender under all the innuendo and the pressure of the moment," said Gillum this week. "I spoke directly to voters. I answered their questions. ... It wasn't as if those voters weren't aware of all the issues that were swirling."
The first public knowledge of the FBI probe came in June 2017 when a federal grand jury subpoenaed five years of records from Tallahassee and a local redevelopment agency that involved high-profile projects and developers, including an ally of Gillum.
In February, a federal search warrant was accidentally made public on a court website. It detailed that the FBI launched its corruption investigation in 2015 and that agents posed as out-of-town real-estate developers and medical marijuana entrepreneurs in order to gain access to various city officials. The warrant stated that agents were focusing on City Commissioner Scott Maddox, a former head of the Florida Democratic Party, and his former chief of staff and whether Maddox was paid to help out businesses seeking help from the city. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Earlier this summer, the FBI asked for thousands of more records, dealing primarily with The Edison, an upscale restaurant frequented by lawmakers and lobbyists that is located in a city-owned building. The Edison received $2 million in financial assistance from both the city and the local community redevelopment agency.
One of the owners of the restaurant was lobbyist Adam Corey, who once served as Gillum's campaign treasurer and has known him since college. Gillum says he has talked to the FBI and that he is not the target of an investigation. He also has told local news outlets that he has broken off his friendship with Corey.
As the investigation has moved along, The Tallahassee Democrat has done a series of stories delving into the web of connections and has reported that Gillum vacationed at a luxury resort in Costa Rica in May 2016 with Corey and another investor in The Edison who is also a Gillum donor and campaign supporter. During that trip, Corey set up a meeting between Gillum and the FBI undercover agents. Local media have also reported on a trip Gillum took to New York where he also met with Corey and undercover agents and attended a showing of the Broadway show "Hamilton." Both the New York and Costa Rica trips are now being probed by Florida's ethics commission after a local businessman filed complaints against Gillum.
Christopher Kise, an attorney for Corey, said his client is not a target of the FBI investigation, but he declined to say if Corey has testified to a grand jury or if he is cooperating. He said he did not know why Gillum has distanced himself from his longtime friend.
"It appears the mayor is throwing Mr. Corey under the bus and I'm not sure why," Kise said. "Adam has always considered the mayor a friend."
The seemingly glacial path of the FBI investigation has led to ongoing speculation of when, or if, indictments will be announced and who will be the eventual target of any charges.
"I'm still wondering what they are looking for," said City Commissioner Gil Ziffer. "I'm not quite sure where all this goes."
Gillum insists that he is cooperating with the FBI and says he wants anyone who broke the law to be "fully held accountable for their actions." He said that's a big difference between him and DeSantis, who has emerged on national television as a harsh critic of the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russia's interference in U.S. elections and whether President Donald Trump or his close allies colluded with Russia.
"In DeSantis' case, he and the president have worked at every turn to undermine the FBI," Gillum said. "They tried to squelch the work of that agency. They have gone out of their way to call them liars and call them part of a dark secret network to undermine the president."