Andrew Gillum shined a signature grin at a May press event last year as he stood alongside Democratic leaders. The former Democratic gubernatorial candidate handed a $100,000 game-show-style check to Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo. The logo for Forward Florida Action, a nonprofit formed just a month prior, with the stated mission of educating the public and increasing voter registration and participation.”
The event seemed to make good on a highly-publicized promise to ramp up Democratic engagement ahead of the 2020 presidential election. “This is simply a downpayment,” Gillum said, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ve got a lot more coming your way.”
Except the check wasn’t a payment at all. New disclosures filed with the IRS by Forward Florida Action don’t include the $100,000 grant to the state party.
A look at campaign finance reports for the party shows the party never received any donation from Forward Florida Action.
Regardless, there never was any $100,000 check written by Forward Florida Action to the state party, something leadership for the organization acknowledged to Florida Politics.
“No campaigns or parties received direct grants from Forward Florida Action,” said Ryan Hurst, executive director of the nonprofit. “Mr. Gillum directly raised the $100,000 commitment to the Florida Democratic Party.”
The name Forward Florida Action only appeared on the cardboard check, not anything that could be deposited at the bank.
“All of Mr. Gillum’s efforts to grant or raise was done by him under the name of his organization, so the FFA name was used when presenting the check,” Hurst said. “Other direct donations to the party were made from Forward Florida PAC.”
Months after the press conference at USF, the Gillum-connected but separate Forward Florida political committee donated $5,000 to the state party in October 2019 and $150,000 in December 2019, according to Florida Democratic Party campaign finance reports.
Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said it was the Florida Forward Action team that set up the appearance the organization was supporting the party.
“Andrew committed $100K and to fulfill that commitment, FF raised the money into the party,” Penalosa said via text. “They did not write a check to us. The check was a prop that the Gillum team brought with them to the press conference. It wasn’t an actual check.”
Some of the questions that long dogged Gillum’s organizations stem from the fact there’s both a nonprofit and a state committee, both connected to the former gubernatorial candidate, operating with similar names in the Florida political world.
But a look through the tax forms for Forward Florida Action, which operates far less transparently thanks to its nonprofit status, raised serious questions about how money there has been spent. That’s part of why the most recent 990 tax forms covering 2019 just became publicly available this month.
The financial disclosures from the nonprofit show the organization raised $2,022,674. That money was supposed to go toward “registering and reengaging voters who are often unseen and unheard.”
But a year later, the gap between registered Democrats and Republicans has greatly diminished. Florida Democrats grew ranks from 4.9 million registered for the 2018 midterms to 5.3 million registered for the 2020 presidential election, but Republicans in that time grew Florida registration from 4.7 million in 2018 to 5.2 million this year.
Democrats being outpaced by Republicans in net registrations can’t be pinned entirely on Gillum, Forward Florida Action or the Forward Florida committee. But it’s long caused donors and activists to criticize the organization for a failure to achieve its stated mission. Orlando attorney John Morgan, for example, has slammed Gillum’s organizations as only providing the politician a “slush fund.”
The latest disclosure for Forward Florida Action suggests the nonprofit has put significant resources toward travel expenses, internal staff and outside consultants, which consumed much of the organization’s budget in 2019.
A quarter of the organization’s revenue was unspent at the end of the year. That’s not unreasonable heading into an election year, but the high operation costs raise more questions based on revelations earlier this year regarding Gillum’s personal life. Notably, Hurst said a high-profile incident in Miami earlier this year, when Gillum attended a wedding in Miami but was in a hotel room drunk when police responded to a reported drug overdose for a known male escort, was a personal trip and Forward Florida Action did not pay for any related expenses.
The organization did issue $485,500 worth of grants. Hurst said that went to organizations engaged in registration and reengagement of low-participation voters, as opposed to the state party or individual campaigns.
The grant total ended up at roughly the same amount as the $484,808 reported in salaries for Forward Florida Action personnel. There, too, questions arise over bookkeeping for the organization. The tax form says the organization relies primarily on volunteer assistance, and just three employees.
That included original executive director Rosy Gonzalez Speers, who in 2019 earned a reported $100,286 before benefits. That leaves a lot of money not explicitly accounted for in the 990 form to pay other staff members.
There, Hurst acknowledged an accounting mistake in the form. Rather than having just three employees, Hurst said the nonprofit in 2019 employed eight full-time workers. An amendment to the report will reflect that discrepancy.
“We are only required to report wages for current officers, directors, trustees, key employees or employees making over $100,000 per year,” Hurst said. “Ms. Speers was a key employee as the Executive Director. None of our other employees fell into any of these designations.”
The organization did not list a salary for Gillum, listed as the nonprofit’s chair, and said he worked an average of two hours a week with Forward Florida Action as an institutional trustee.
“Mr. Gillum was a volunteer chair of the organization and did not receive any compensation,” Hurst said. “In regards to travel, Mr. Gillum and members of our team traveled nationally to raise funds, and also in Florida to build support for our core mission.”
The nonprofit also spent $181,838 with outside consultants.
The organization in its 38 weeks of existence in 2019 spent $153,503 on travel expenses. That’s an average of $4,040 per week. It also represents more than a quarter of the $545,817 in total expenses for the organization.
When all was said and done, the results sought by Forward Florida Action in its mission were largely intangible. More voters indeed were registered in Florida at the end of the 2020 cycle than when it began, and Democrats added more voters than the just-over-30,000-vote deficit that cost Gillum the job of Florida Governor to Republican Ron DeSantis.
But while Democratic President-elect Joe Biden flipped five states Republican Donald Trump won in 2016, Trump won Florida by greater than 3% this year as Republicans flipped two U.S. House seats and saw gains in the state Legislature.
That’s caused a significant amount of self-reflection within Florida Democratic circles. And it’s likely to subject Gillum’s political efforts to fresh scrutiny.