TAMPA — Andrew Warren, the former federal prosecutor running against Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, is on the attack yet again, this time over comments Ober made last week about a sex crime case.
"State Attorney Mark Ober criticized a 15-year-old rape victim," read the headline on a news release issued by Warren's campaign Tuesday. The release references a discussion that happened Friday when Warren and Ober appeared at a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa luncheon.
At the luncheon, Warren brought up the case of Alexander Pelzer, a Maryland man who is accused of crimes stemming from a sexual relationship he had with a 17-year-old girl.
Pelzer, a 27-year-old musician who has a large following on YouTube, began talking online with the girl when she was 15. At some point, they began a sexual relationship, according to a Hillsborough sheriff's report.
The girl flew from Tampa to Washington, D.C., several times to meet and have sex with Pelzer, the report stated. Pelzer would give the girl sexual "assignments," the report stated, and referred to her as his "slave." The girl's mother notified authorities when she became aware of the relationship.
Ober's office initially declined to charge Pelzer.
In February, after the case was the subject of a news segment on WTSP-Ch. 10, the State Attorney's Office re-examined the case and charged Pelzer with several crimes, including use of a child in sexual performance. Pelzer is awaiting trial.
Warren said the case was an example of Ober's office not having the right priorities.
Ober responded by saying that Warren did not know the facts of the case.
"She was with him voluntarily," Ober said. "She flew to see him."
Those lines were repeated in Warren's news release.
"It's a parent's worst nightmare," Warren said in the release. "Their child is lured by an online predator, turned into a sex slave, and repeatedly raped, and not only did the State Attorney mishandle the case, but then criticized the victim. It's hard to believe."
Warren's campaign manager, Tom Alte, said the campaign was highlighting Ober's comments to show his insensitivity to victims. He called the comments an example of "rape culture."
"For a sitting state attorney to say something like that shows how out of touch he is," Alte said. "This is discouraging to other victims. … How likely are they to come forward if they think they're not going to be believed?"
On Wednesday, Ober fired back.
"In no way am I blaming this victim or have I ever blamed any victim," Ober said. "I am committed to bringing justice to many victims, including this young lady."
Ober said Warren was exaggerating the facts of the case for political gain.
"As a state attorney," Ober said, "I have an ethical duty not to mischaracterize the case through public comment that may potentially taint a prospective jury panel."
The exchange is the latest in a string of criticisms that Warren, a Democrat, and Ober, a Republican, have lobbed at each other since Warren announced his candidacy in the spring.
In April, Warren accused Ober of rarely showing up for work. He pointed to roughly a month's worth of Ober's key card data — the log created when Ober uses his security badge to get into the state attorney's building. The data, which Warren obtained through a public records request, showed Ober only used the card on five days between Feb. 29 and April 2.
Ober countered that the data didn't prove anything, that he can get into the building without using the card and that he sometimes works elsewhere. He also pointed out a $32 million fraud case Warren handled as an assistant U.S. attorney, which resulted in charges dropped for all but one defendant.
Warren is the first Democrat to challenge Ober in years. Ober was first elected in 2000 and has been re-elected three times without opposition.
Times correspondent William March contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.