TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Four men with connections in Florida politics are at the center of the international quid pro quo scandal that launched a federal investigation and an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
But the investigation has hardly made a dent in Florida’s capital, despite the men’s ties to state officials including the governor, several insiders told BuzzFeed News. There’s one overarching reason for that: They say allegations of corruption and shady characters bidding for influence are already so pervasive in the world of Florida politics.
“We have colorful people in Florida,” said Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Republican consultant and lobbyist. “It is certainly not unknown in Florida politics that someone who appears to be above board turns out to be skeevier than you would have thought in the beginning. As a matter of fact, it happens with some frequency in Florida. As a result, it is hardly earth-shattering.”
“There are more than an average number of scammers, posers, and bad guys in Florida,” he said.
Federal investigators and lawmakers scrutinizing Rudy Giuliani’s back-channel campaign in Ukraine have, for weeks, been circling in on the actions of Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, David Correia, and Andrey Kukushkin. All four have been arrested on charges of campaign finance violations and could face further charges on financial crimes. Parnas and Fruman are longtime Giuliani associates who were key to his mission to remove the former US ambassador to Ukraine and get dirt on former vice president Joe Biden.
The four men, who have all pleaded not guilty, used shell companies to funnel donations to prominent Republicans, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott, and attempted to become investors in medical marijuana companies. DeSantis and Scott returned the donations after they were reported by local media, but in the following weeks, multiple photos of DeSantis with Parnas and Fruman surfaced — at campaign events and election night parties and in the VIP section at the governor’s inauguration.
After several weeks of questions from reporters, a spokesperson for DeSantis told the Miami Herald last week, “We think they met after then-congressman DeSantis spoke at a Zion Organization of America event in May of 2018. Any interactions between the campaign and Lev Parnas were toward building support for the campaign.”
DeSantis has yet to provide further details on why Parnas is pictured in multiple photos with him at campaign events and on election night, or who exactly connected them in the first place. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
About a dozen insiders in Tallahassee — both Republicans and Democrats — told BuzzFeed News murky relationships are par for the course in the state’s politics. They said the connection between DeSantis and Giuliani’s associates is unlikely to tarnish his reputation or his popularity (in recent polling DeSantis has an approval rating of 72% from voters).
“Just assume if you’re talking to anyone in the Tallahassee Statehouse that they’re wearing a wire,” said one Republican consultant.
The twists and details of the impeachment investigation have fascinated Washington, but in the dimly lit barrooms and the Statehouse halls of Tallahassee where the dealings of Florida politics play out, however, “No one’s talking about it,” said Anthony Pedicini, a Republican strategist who works as a consultant on statewide campaigns.
“The only people talking about it are the media,” he said, over coffee at Goodie’s Eatery, where a range of consultants, lobbyists, candidates, and public officials stream in and out every morning.
“If you’re going to have Ukrainians around, it’s going to be here,” said Screven Watson, a veteran Democratic lobbyist and former head of the state Democratic Party, adding that a lot of foreign investment is coming into Florida as the medical marijuana industry booms.
“I don’t blame him and I doubt anybody blames the governor for that association,” said another Republican consultant.
On the front porch at Andrew’s, a laid-back bistro where legislators and insiders flock for lunch, at the backbar at Clyde’s, a well-loved dive frequented by operatives and staffers, and at the exclusive Governor’s Club next door, the talk of recent weeks has been focused on other dramas. A possible rift between DeSantis and Joe Gruters, chair of the Florida Republican Party. Tussles over liquor licensing laws. Debates over what it would mean for both parties in Florida if Sen. Elizabeth Warren becomes the Democratic nominee for president.
Some local operatives said the federal investigation and the impeachment process seem like the kind of Washington fixation that has little relevance to Florida, even as several of the main actors in question and the president’s business and personal connections — Trump announced plans to become a Florida resident last week — keep the state and how it functions on the national stage.
“That’s inside the beltway and not something people are focused on here,” said Watson over a late afternoon beer at Andrew’s.
“I think the people that are in DC are obviously more entrenched in it because it’s affecting their day-to-day life and their businesses up there, whereas in Florida we’re monitoring it,” said a Republican fundraiser, adding that they’re not giving it much attention beyond that.
In the past year, at least three Tallahassee insiders have been arrested on public corruption, fraud, and extortion charges, including former Tallahassee commissioner Scott Maddox, consultant Paige Carter-Smith, and businessperson John “J.T.” Burnette. Those charges were the result of an FBI investigation underway since 2015, which came to light last year — undercover agents posed as businesspeople and prospective medical marijuana entrepreneurs to infiltrate Tallahassee.
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was caught up in the FBI investigation after he allegedly accepted gifts from a Tallahassee businessperson and from undercover FBI agents posing as businesspeople. DeSantis, in the final weeks of the campaign in 2018, focused on the allegations as a major line of attack against Gillum.
In January this year, the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Gillum violated state ethics laws — in April, Gillum settled the ethics complaint with a $5,000 fine. The commission has pursued several other complaints against public officials in the state in recent years.
In response to the widespread and long-running current of corruption in Tallahassee, US Attorney Larry Keefe established a public trust earlier this year aimed at working with the IRS and the FBI to specifically target corruption and threats to election security.
“We would not be establishing this public trust unit, doing all the things that I’m telling you about today, if we were not pursuing all sorts of leads in all sorts of places,’’ Keefe told reporters in August.
At least three county commissioners have been investigated by the FBI over the past 10 years, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Hagen, who is currently under investigation for possibly using his position to assist developers he has ties with, according to local TV news station WTSP 10 News.
One Florida leader put the lack of local interest and consequence down to an effect of the Trump era, where one scandal seems to overtake another in rapid-fire news cycles, sometimes with seemingly little consequence for the elected officials involved.
“If Trump hadn’t set the bar so low, you would at least have to explain something like this, which clearly needs explanation, and if you didn’t explain it then, well, you would be held politically accountable,” said former US Rep. Gwen Graham, who ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year.