Florida’s gubernatorial election took a legal detour Thursday when lawyers for Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum circulated a “cease and desist” letter to television stations for what they claim is a defamatory ad.
The ad, which appears to be paid for by the state’s Republican Party and others, concerns an ongoing FBI investigation into contracts let by Tallahassee city hall where Mr. Gillum is mayor. Mr. Gillum insists he has been told he is not a target of the investigation and thus far he has not been named in any subpoenas issued in conjunction with the probe.
Mr. Gillum’s legal team writes that the ad violates the prongs of New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court case governing libel with public figures, in that it is knowingly false and made with malicious intent.
While such tactics as writing cease-and-desist letters is not unheard of in heated political campaigns, even prosecutors who the Gillum campaign got together Thursday to discuss the letter acknowledged it was unlikely the courts would take interest.
The issue also comes at a time when Florida is coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which tore into the eastern Panhandle and Florida’s Big Bend on Wednesday, leaving a trail of destruction and killing at least two people.
Instead, Mr. Gillum’s team and the prosecutors said they hoped to highlight the alleged ethical shortcomings of gubernatorial rival Rep. Ron DeSantis’ campaign.
“It is abundantly clear that Congressman DeSantis is a liar who has no respect for Floridians and no positive vision for our state,” said the Gillum campaign’s communications director, Johanna Cervone. “His latest attack ad is indicative of a candidate with no moral compass who has resorted to desperate and dirty lies in order to score political points during a natural disaster.”
Republicans are not backing down.
“We stand by the ad,” said Meredith Beatrice, communications director for the Republican Party of Florida.
The FBI investigation in Tallahassee became public last year. It concerns local businessmen, one of whom was a longtime close friend of Mr. Gillum and active in his mayoral campaign, and City Hall contracts, in particular those let by the City/County Community Redevelopment Agency.
Mr. Gillum took trips to Costa Rica and New York City with his former associate and undercover FBI agents were involved in the New York trip, which included Broadway and baseball tickets. The Gillum campaign has released records it says show he paid his own way on those journeys.
“Andrew Gillum is running for governor — and from the FBI,” the ad intones over images of Mr. Gillum crossed with what appears to be crime scene tape. “Gillum took possible illegal trips with lobbyists to New York and Costa Rica; Gillum approved millions in grants to those same lobbyists.”
But Mr. Gillum’s legal team say that takes the mayor’s connection with the federal investigation too far.
“To the contrary, it has been widely reported that the mayor has been advised by the FBI that he is not the subject of an investigation,” reads the letter from Glenn Burhans Jr., legal counsel for the Gillum campaign.
The FBI’s Jacksonville declined to confirm or deny questions about Mr. Gillum’s status or the Tallahassee investigation.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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