Tallahassee Democrat by Jeffrey Schweers
April 22, 2017
Weeks before Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum announced he was running for Governor, he sent Neera Tanden an email thanking her for her work on the Hillary Clinton campaign.
But something else was on his mind that day in March that he wanted to discuss with Tanden, former policy director for President Barack Obama and the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research center.
From his campaign account <email@example.com> Gillum wrote:
“I was hoping that you and I could find the time to connect by phone or in person soon. I saw that you may have waded into the Florida Gubernatorial Primary in support of Gwen Graham, and I wanted the opportunity to discuss that race with you before too much time passes.”
Using another email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, Gillum cc’d subsequent emails from Tanden to his assistant at City Hall, Angie Whitaker (email@example.com). Whitaker asked what “the preferred number that Mayor Gillum should call to connect with Ms. Tanden on Tuesday, February 14 @ 12:30pm? Thank you.”
More than just an interesting anecdote about Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign, it’s one of numerous examples of campaign-related and political emails that went through City Hall since last January. Many of them involve city staff and mayoral interns setting up meetings and appointments and passing messages of a political and campaign nature, often using their private accounts during working hours to relay campaign-related messages, frequently through Whitaker.
State ethics rules prohibit public officials from “corruptly” using their position, staff or resources for personal gain. They also prohibit public employees from campaigning on behalf of their favorite candidates on the taxpayer’s time.
The more than 13,000 emails obtained from the Mayor’s Office by the Democrat from January 2016 to March of this year show a busy and confusing intersection between the personal, the political and the professional — one that may blur ethical boundaries between the worlds of city business and political aspirations, between public employees and campaign staff as well as his work with People for the American Way as director of the YEO Network.
“It can get confusing, but as I have indicated to my PFAWF staff, that I am joining this call as a YEO members and in my role as an elected official – which is the capacity under which my statements were made,” Gillum noted to Whitaker in an email last September, sent from his PFAW account to Whitaker, and cc’d to top staffers Dustin Daniels and Jamie Van Pelt.
They also illustrate that political content was not limited to emails that surfaced earlier this year on software the Mayor’s Office bought from a Democratic Party vendor with city money.
The software has dogged Gillum’s campaign since the days before he officially announced his candidacy. The emails came to light on the same day he filed papers to run, and he was forced to pay back the city $5,000 and apologize for what he called an inadvertent “human error.”
County Republicans questioned the mayor’s use of city resources and staff for political gain, and the Leon County Sheriff’s office is investigating whether Gillum or his staff violated state law by sending out emails of a political nature on software paid for with taxpayer dollars.
“We’re still getting subpoenaed documents back from the email company and we’ve got to go through all those,” LCSO spokesman Grady Jordan said.
The Mayor’s Office has said it is cooperating with the investigation.
When asked specifically about the emails, the Mayor’s Office issued a prepared statement.
“Our office focuses solely on helping the mayor do the job that he was elected to do, including serving as an ambassador for the city of Tallahassee across the country. Attempts or ideas that detract from that reality are simply misplaced and misunderstood,” said Daniels, the mayor’s chief of staff. “We continue to do all we can to faithfully maximize our efforts at the city, and ultimately work toward our goal of moving our community forward.”
The ethics laws were written before electronic communications, tablets and smart phones. Dealing with overlapping emails is a tricky area all elected officials must deal with, said Pete Dunbar, former lawmaker, and former chairman of the Florida Commission on Ethics.
“Sometimes people get careless and there are things you shouldn’t do,” Dunbar said. “In my experience at worst this is a gray area.”
The use of a private email server haunted Hillary Clinton throughout her presidential campaign last year, triggering an FBI inquiry that found no criminal wrongdoing. Gov. Rick Scott paid $700,000 two years ago to settle several lawsuits alleging he and his staff set up private email accounts to hide discussions about state business.
When he represented Pinellas County in the Legislature, Dunbar said, he made sure both legislative and legal staff had his full calendars so as not to cross schedules.
To find an ethical violation one would have to go beyond the procedural or technical day-to-day messages, he said.
Officials have to be well-coordinated between their public and political staff to avoid going over the line.
Any kind of outreach soliciting campaign or public support is “way over the line,” Dunbar said.
PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN
Gillum’s emails first came to the public’s attention when it was discovered he’d purchased software from NGP VAN, a company that designs software and technology for Democratic campaigns and causes.
NGP touts its product as a suite of new political media, fundraising and campaign tools to help local candidates publish compelling websites, send emails, manage online fundraising and use social media more effectively “and integrate their websites with the same field and get out the vote tools used by virtually every Democratic candidate for public office.”
The city produced over 100 emails sent through the software, including invites to campaign appearances by then-Vice President Joe Biden and a fundraiser at the home of then-Florida Democratic Party chair Allison Tant with Bill Nelson as special guest and Gillum as chair.
The Mayor’s Office said it bought the software to better communicate with constituents and measure how well certain emails perform. Most were of a routine nature or dealt with local city-sponsored events like the Longest Table.
To find out how far the mixing of professional and political went, the Democrat requested over a year’s worth of emails from the Mayor and his staff, using key search words including “campaign” and “donation” and “Democrat.”
The paper received more than 13,000 emails from the mayor’s office from January 1, 2016 to mid-March.
A cursory search quickly found the same routine city business and calendar appointments as the previous search, but also a trove of emails that pulled the curtain back on the political activities of the mayor and his staff.
There are emails about community events like the Longest Table and Family Friendly Work Place (in which the Tallahassee Democrat was a partner), civic events and church functions, speaking engagements to college groups, and meetings with local business people. Coordinating travel to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and dealing with an invite from the Volusia County Democratic Hispanic Caucus.
There are emails about prospective mayoral fellow candidates and meetings with people about restoring Amtrak Service.
A deeper dive shows exchanges between staff — using private email accounts in many cases — and the Leon Democratic Executive Committee, the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee. Those emails deal with coordinating the mayor’s calendar and making travel arrangements to political events, showing the mayor’s deep engagement in those organizations.
Gillum recently announced hiring former FDP Executive Director Scott Arceneaux as chief strategist for the gubernatorial campaign. [READ MORE]