Disgraced Florida Pol Andrew Gillum's Top Aides Behind Multimillion-Dollar Weed Initiative

With Gillum facing federal corruption charges, campaign aides join new group with its own ties to corrupt leaders

Former Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and a marijuana leaf / edited from Getty Images
September 1, 2022

Following former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum's arrest on federal corruption charges, the scandal-plagued Democrat's top aides moved on to a new campaign—a recreational weed initiative spearheaded by a company with its own ties to the city's corrupt actors.

On Aug. 8, Smart & Safe Florida—a political action committee working to legalize recreational weed—filed its organizing documents with the state, which listed former Gillum campaign attorney Glenn Burhans and former Gillum fundraising PAC head Andrew Gay as the group's registered agent and treasurer, respectively. The move came six weeks after Gillum was arrested on federal corruption charges, which stemmed from a years-long probe into political corruption in Tallahassee, the city Gillum led from 2014 to 2018.

The company behind the recreational weed push, Trulieve, is no stranger to that probe. Tallahassee real estate mogul J.T. Burnette—who is married to Trulieve's CEO, Kim Rivers—was sentenced in November 2021 to three years in federal prison as part of the investigation. Text messages from the case showed Burnette coordinating with a city commissioner to implement a temporary ban on new medical weed dispensaries, which benefited Trulieve. Burnette also bragged to undercover FBI agents that he worked with a then-state lawmaker to insert "little tweaks" into a bill that outlined which companies could apply for medical marijuana licenses in Florida—tweaks that made it impossible for some of Trulieve's competitors to obtain licenses. The company gave Smart & Safe Florida $5 million in August.

Burhans and Gay's work for the Trulieve-led weed initiative gives the pair of former Gillum aides a new political project following the disgraced Democrat's rapid fall from grace. In March 2020, Gillum—who lost Florida's 2018 gubernatorial election to Republican Ron DeSantis by just 0.4 percent—was found unconscious along with two men in a drug-filled hotel room, which contained crystal meth, Xanax, and a drug commonly injected into the penis by men suffering from erectile dysfunction. One of the two men who accompanied Gillum was a gay male escort who suffered a drug overdose.

While Gillum withdrew from politics after the ordeal, Gay continued to serve as treasurer of the Democrat's fundraising PAC, Forward Florida, until his resignation in August 2020. Roughly two years later, federal agents arrested Gillum on 21 counts of conspiracy, fraud, and making false statements. When the Florida Republican Party ran ads in 2018 tying Gillum to the federal investigation into Tallahassee corruption, Burhans himself demanded TV stations take the ad down, calling the spot "demonstrably false in numerous respects."

Smart & Safe Florida did not return a request for comment.

Prior to its push to legalize recreational weed in Florida, Trulieve worked to dominate the state's medicinal weed market after DeSantis signed a bill in 2019 legalizing smokable medical marijuana. The company operates a quarter of Florida's dispensaries and controls more than half of the state's medicinal marijuana market, helping it bring in more than $320 million in second-quarter revenue this year. Many marijuana advocates in Florida, however, are not fans of Trulieve's initiative, which they argue would give the company a monopoly by allowing only existing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell weed for recreational use.

Trulieve is tied to prominent Florida Democrats beyond Gillum. Florida agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried held six figures' worth of stock in a rival cannabis dispensary, Harvest Health and Recreation, that was acquired by Trulieve in October 2021. After the Washington Free Beacon reported on that stock holding, Fried—who during her failed gubernatorial campaign this year promised to legalize recreational weed—said she would liquidate her Trulieve shares, which are worth roughly $183,000.

Fried on Aug. 23 lost Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary to Charlie Crist by 24 points. Tallahassee attorney Sean Pittman, who is a registered Trulieve lobbyist, has called both Fried and Crist his "friends."