(CNN) Andrew Gillum, a once-rising Democratic star who nearly won a 2018 race for Florida governor, was indicted on Wednesday along with a close political ally on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and making false statements.
Gillum pleaded not guilty during a brief appearance at the United States Courthouse in Tallahassee. A trial date was set for August 16.
A 26-page grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday alleges Gillum and a longtime associate, Sharon Janet Lettman-Hicks, engaged in a years-long scheme to turn political donations and grant funds into personal income. According to a Department of Justice news release, the two obtained funds through "false and fraudulent promises and representations that the funds would be used for a legitimate purpose."
Gillum is also accused of lying to the FBI during an investigation into corruption inside Tallahassee City Hall, where Gillum served as mayor, and is accused of promising political favors to those who financially supported him.
Gillum, 42, and Lettman-Hicks, 53, face 21 charges, according to the news release. Making a false statement carries a prison sentence of up to five years, while the maximum prison term for wire fraud and conspiracy charges are each 20 years.
In a statement released before the government announced the charges, Gillum declared his innocence and suggested the case against him was political.
"I have spent the last 20 years of my life in public service and continue to fight for the people," Gillum said. "Every campaign I've run has been done with integrity. Make no mistake that this case is not legal, it is political. Throughout my career I have always stood up for the people of Florida and have spoken truth to power."
Gillum is a former CNN political commentator.
A joint statement from Marc Elias, a prominent elections attorney, and David Oscar Markus, a Miami criminal defense lawyer, said, "The government got it wrong today."
The indictment is the latest downturn in the descent of someone who was once one of the Democratic Party's fastest rising politicians. Gillum rose to national prominence in 2018 as the first Black nominee for governor in Florida history, but spiraled after losing to Republican Ron DeSantis that November by less than 33,000 votes. His star crashed in March 2020, when police responding to a possible overdose call said they found Gillum in a Miami hotel room with a baggie of crystal meth and a collapsed companion. Gillum later entered rehab.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw wrote on Twitter Tuesday: "Thirty thousand votes... In a state of more than 21 million people. DeSantis won by 0.4% That's what saved Florida. Your vote matters."
The allegations in the indictment span Gillum's rise as Tallahassee mayor through his campaign for governor and his political work after his defeat. According to the indictment, starting in 2016, Gillum and Lettman-Hicks repeatedly used entities one or the other controlled to solicit donations that would later go toward personal use.
On several occasions, money donated to those entities found its way to a media consulting company owned by Lettman-Hicks, which she "then fraudulently provided to Gillum for his personal use disguised as payroll payments," according to the indictment.
In one example, Gillum and Lettman-Hicks allegedly steered a $250,000 campaign contribution into a separate 501(c)4 organization "managed by an acquaintance whom Gillum and Lettman-Hicks could control." They then attempted to conceal the fraud, including by filing fraudulent paperwork, the indictment says.
"It's like a Greek tragedy," said John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer who donated to Gillum's 2018 campaign. "Andrew Gillum has single handedly destroyed the Democratic Party in Florida for the foreseeable future. And that's his legacy."
Lettman-Hicks is listed as the CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, a LGBTQ advocacy group, and is a candidate for state representative. She has been described as a mentor to Gillum and the two have worked closely together since Gillum's first campaign for Tallahassee city commissioner two decades ago. In 2019, Gillum started a new business, CJD Group, LLC. Lettman-Hicks was listed on the company's registration documents filed with the state.
Questions about their working relationship first sprung up during his campaign for governor. Gillum listed work for Lettman-Hicks on state financial disclosure documents but declined to describe his role with her company. At the same time, Gillum's campaign rented office space from Lettman-Hicks' organization.
After Gillum's defeat, as he became the face of Florida Democrats and led a new effort to register voters in the state, Lettman-Hicks gained a prominent position in the state Democratic Party. At one point, she was the party's highest-paid employee this year, according to campaign finance records.
In 2019, a leaked federal grand jury subpoena first suggested investigators were reviewing the ties between Gillum and Lettman-Hicks. The subpoena, first reported by the Tampa Bay Times, asked an associate to turn over documents related to Lettman-Hicks, Gillum, his gubernatorial campaign and other organizations tied to both individuals. By the end of the year, a political committee that was supposed to fund Gillum's future political endeavors had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal expenses.
At the time, Lettman-Hicks wrote on Facebook that she was a "pawn being used by the oppressor" to take down Gillum.
Gillum has for years faced rumors that the FBI was encircling his political activity. His campaign for governor was dogged by a sprawling federal probe into Tallahassee City Hall that revealed Gillum had accepted Broadway tickets to the musical "Hamilton" and other perks from an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer. The investigation led to the conviction of a Tallahassee commissioner and two businessmen, but Gillum never faced charges. He ultimately settled a state ethics investigation by paying a $5,000 fine.
According to the indictment unsealed Wednesday, he lied to federal investigators when interviewed about Tallahassee public corruption. Gillum, prosecutors said, falsely told FBI agents he was never offered or given anything by the developer and had stopped communications with the developer after they tried to link political contributions to support for potential projects in Tallahassee.
Even amid his legal troubles, Gillum had for a time maintained his newfound national standing after his defeat. CNN hired him as a political commentator and Harvard University plucked him to be a guest lecturer. He became a sounding board for 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, who were eager to earn the endorsement of the young Black leader.
After his 2020 run-in with police in South Florida, Gillum disappeared for a time. He announced that he would enter rehab, saying in a statement, "I will be stepping down from all public facing roles for the foreseeable future."
But his exit from the spotlight was brief. In a revealing interview later in 2020 with television host Tamron Hall, Gillum shard his substance abuse troubles after losing to DeSantis. He also said that he identifies as bisexual.
Lately, Gillum hosted a podcast in which he interviewed prominent progressives and Black thought leaders. He recently posted a discussion with Laphonza Butler, the president of the abortion rights group EMILY's List.