TAMPA — In the early 1900s, illegal gambling flourished in Tampa. Underground casinos operated in cafes and restaurants. Numbers were sold seemingly everywhere, from grocery stores to city hall.
By 1936, Florida’s governor had grown tired of the growth of the illegal activity in Tampa, placing the blame partially on county solicitor C. Jay Hardee. He suspended the attorney for neglecting his duty to prosecute the crimes.
More than eight decades later, that action was among the those cited by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office as evidence that he is within his jurisdiction to suspend Hillsborough County state attorney Andrew Warren, also for alleged neglect of duties.
The Tampa Bay Times dove into its archives to research the story of Hardee and his suspension.
It starts with a jail break and includes another suspended county solicitor who claimed he was sane and had the papers to prove it.
In January 1934, three prisoners escaped Hillsborough County jail with keys made from small strips of steel and spoon handles.
While it was not directly Sheriff Will Spencer’s fault, it was a final straw. Spencer had previously been accused of extortion in unrelated cases.
County solicitor Morris Givens charged the sheriff with extortion and negligence due to the escape “to hold Spencer accountable under statutes which hold a sheriff responsible for acts of his deputies,” the Tampa Tribune reported.
The sheriff was acquitted of extortion in his first trial. Givens then dropped the negligence charges just before the second trial. The public was outraged. Givens was accused of being incompetent and a county grand jury was convened to investigate him.
The grand jury recommended that Gov. David Sholtz suspend Givens for job incompetency and repeated episodes of public drunkenness. On one occasion at a drug store, according to the grand jury report published in newspapers, Givens declared that “he liked his women and he liked his liquor, and further stated that he had been examined by some of the best psychiatrists in the country and that they had given him papers and pronounced him sane.”
The governor suspended Givens and replaced him with Hardee, a former chair of the county democratic committee and an attorney of 13 years as well as being the nephew of a former governor.
In April 1934, when Hardee took office, he promised to take on the underworld. And, in December of that year, he joined a raid on the Panama Cafe in Tampa that resulted in the seizure of gambling equipment and 16 arrests.
But, about 18 months later, none of those men had stood trial and Hardee had not charged anyone in Hillsborough with illegal gambling in 1935, despite there being arrests and the crime still flourishing.
A county grand jury was asked to investigate Hardee.
Hardee defended his record, claiming that the Panama Cafe raid evidence was inadmissible in court because it had been collected without a search warrant, but the grand jury stated that Hardee had witnessed the illegal gambling and that was enough under law to prosecute.
What’s more, the grand jury added, illegal gambling in the county had reached “its peak during the years 1934 and 1935 ... was the worst in the history of the county” and Hardee’s inaction was a culprit.
In May 1936, the grand jury recommended that the governor suspend Hardee, whom he appointed, on the grounds of neglect of duty. That recommendation is legal under the Florida constitution. The Senate then can then make the suspension permanent or vote for reinstatement.
The governor declined to act immediately. An election was a month away and he believed the voters were “best qualified to pass judgment on the case,” the Tampa Tribune reported.
Hardee’s campaign then focused on his 1936 track record, touting in newspaper advertisements that he had “broken Tampa’s dope ring” with 17 convictions.
Still, he lost the election to Joseph Williams.
Hardee’s term did not end until April 1937, but the governor suspended him in July 1936 and named LeRoy Allen as the replacement for the remainder of the term. It would be up to the Senate to decide if the suspension was permanent.
In October 1937, “several of the grand jurors signed a new report asking for Hardee’s reinstatement, saying gambling increased after he was suspended,” the Tampa Tribune reported.
Seeking to overturn his suspension, Hardee went to the Florida Supreme Court.
Hardee’s suit was filed against Allen, claiming the replacement did not have the right to hold that office because the governor had no right to suspend him.
The Supreme Court vote was 2 to 2 with one justice refusing to participate, but his reasoning was in line with those voting against Hardee. The suspension, he wrote in the opinion, was not a judicial matter and should only be decided by the senate.
A justice in favor of the suspension wrote that the “power vested in the governor ... to suspend all appointed or elected officers who are not subject to impeachment, is an explicit executive power” if the officer neglects their duties. But the Senate should have final say.
A dissenting justice countered that the suspension implies that the governor can “select names of particular citizens who shall be indicted and use his executive powers” to coerce criminal prosecutions and suspend those who do not carry out the order.
A split vote meant that Hardee lost “his fight for reinstatement,” the Tampa Tribune reported. The Supreme Court opinion said the decision sustained Allen’s motion to “quash” the case.
Still, the Tampa Tribune’s editorial board framed the decision primarily as the governor’s victory. “Whether or not the Governor of Florida has the right under the law to suspend a county solicitor for neglect of duty and appoint another person in his place is definitively settled in the affirmative by the State Supreme Court’s decision,” they wrote.
In June 1937, two months after his term would have ended, Hardee had his state Senate hearing. He claimed that his life had been threatened numerous times by ““‘crooks and racketeers’ in Tampa who engineered his suspension through charges by a grand jury,” the Tampa Tribune reported.
The Senate ruled in Hardee’s favor and voted to pay him $4,200 in back salary.
“I am thankful for the vindication,” Hardee told the press.