By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A federal jury was empaneled Monday in the trial of former Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who was indicted last year on corruption charges including wire fraud and lying to federal investigators.
Gillum, a former Tallahassee mayor, catapulted to rising-star status in Democratic circles as he campaigned against now-Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2018. DeSantis narrowly defeated Gillum, winning by less than 33,000 votes in what was one of the nation’s marquee elections.
Gillum and a longtime adviser, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, were indicted last year after a lengthy federal investigation into corruption in city government. The duo face allegations of making false statements to the FBI, conspiring to commit wire fraud and committing wire fraud. Gillum and Lettman-Hicks, who were accused of diverting campaign funds to Gillum’s personal use, have pleaded not guilty.
U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, defense lawyers and prosecutors spent Monday selecting 12 jurors and three alternate jurors from an initial pool of 66 candidates. The jury includes two Black men and three Black women.
Gillum, who attempted to become the state’s first Black governor, has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
“We’ve got a long day ahead, but if we are fortunate, we will get a fair jury. That’s all we want,” he told reporters Monday morning as he entered the federal courthouse in downtown Tallahassee.
Among those present during jury selection were Gillum’s wife, R. Jai, other family members and longtime friend Daryl Parks, a Tallahassee lawyer.
On the eve of the trial, Gillum used social media to drum up contributions to the Bring Justice Home Legal Defense Fund, a crowdsourcing effort spearheaded by Ben Crump, a nationally renowned civil-rights attorney who also is a close ally of Gillum.
“One of my greatest challenges yet is the court case that begins tomorrow. I am unequivocally innocent of the gross allegations being made against me. But I can’t win this fight alone. Thank you for the prayers and words of support many of you have extended to me and my family,” Gillum’s post said.
Gillum is represented by David Oscar Markus, A. Margot Moss and Katie Miller of the Miami-based Markus/PLLC firm.
Prosecutors last week filed what is called a “superseding” indictment against Gillum and Lettman-Hicks, dropping two wire-fraud charges. Gillum now faces 19 counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud and making false statements.
At Markus’ request, Winsor asked potential jurors about their opinions on guns and on LGBTQ issues. The charges against Gillum involve funds related to a Black LGBTQ-advocacy organization and an organization that supports stricter gun control.
The jury pool was made up of men and women from Leon County along with a handful of surrounding rural areas, including Madison, Liberty and Wakulla counties.
The indictment, delivered by a grand jury last year and unsealed in June, painted a damning portrait of Gillum and Lettman-Hicks and focused on activities between 2016 and 2019, a time of Gillum’s political ascendancy.
Prosecutors accused Lettman-Hicks of illegally steering money to Gillum through her company, P&P Communications.
Gillum’s attorneys filed motions seeking to have the charges dropped and have also contended that the former mayor was singled out for prosecution because he was a Black candidate for governor. Winsor refused to dismiss the case in December.
For about a year after his narrow defeat to DeSantis, Gillum continued to enjoy national fame, working briefly for CNN as a political commentator in 2019.
But he dropped out of the spotlight after a 2020 incident in a South Beach hotel room, where a man reportedly overdosed. Gillum was in the room, and a police report said he was “unable to communicate with officers due to his inebriated state.”
Three small bags of suspected crystal meth were found in the room, police said, but Gillum denied doing drugs.
In March 2020, Gillum announced he was going into a rehabilitation facility because of alcohol abuse. He also said he was bisexual.
The Tallahassee public-corruption probe — dubbed “Operation Capital Currency” by the FBI — also snared Scott Maddox, a former Tallahassee mayor and former Florida Democratic Party chairman. Maddox pleaded guilty in 2019 and served time in federal prison.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.