Federal case fizzled as prosecutor left to seek Hillsborough office

Published Jan. 5, 2016

TAMPA —While a former Justice Department lawyer was announcing his bid to become Hillsborough County's top state prosecutor Monday, his last big federal case was gasping for air.

Until recently, Andrew H. Warren was lead prosecutor against three phone company owners accused in 2014 of siphoning $32 million from Lifeline, a program that helps poor people afford cellphones.

But on Monday, before jury selection started in Tampa, a federal district judge dismissed 12 counts of a 13-count indictment at the request of another Justice Department lawyer.

That left defendants Leonard I. Solt of Land O'Lakes and Kevin Brian Cox of Arlington, Tenn., no longer facing charges. Only a single mail fraud charge remained against Thomas Biddix of Melbourne, who once faced 18 assorted counts.

What happened? It related to record-keeping regulations for companies that participate in the program. But in short: New evidence contradicted old evidence, as Warren was on his way out.

The case revolved around the charged men's ties to a company called Associated Telecommunications Management Service. They were accused of overstating the number of customers who qualified for subsidies.

The federal Lifeline program lowers phone bills for the poor by $9.25 a month. Phone companies screen the needy and are reimbursed through the fees of ordinary subscribers.

The prosecution had established, through interviews, that hard-copy records were required by administrators of the Lifeline program and maintained those were the only records that could be used in a defense.

But the defense contended that the audio files — such as telephone recordings — were also acceptable during the years in question, 2009 to 2011.

Further interviews suggested the prosecution could be wrong, which posed a problem because government investigators had not gone through all 1.5 million audio files collected.

Warren told the Tampa Bay Times that he had already notified his Washington, D.C., bosses that he intended to resign to run against Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober when problems emerged in the case.

"The ATMS indictment came after a long and tedious investigation into a massive fraud of taxpayer dollars and is the type of justifiable and righteous case that merited prosecution," he said.

He said he gave notice over Thanksgiving, stopped working on the case at the beginning of December and was not part of the government's decision to withdraw charges.

The case was filed by the Justice Department in Washington, which chose the Middle District of Florida as the venue.

Warren said he assumes his former colleagues did what was best to achieve justice, as he would have done.

The stripped-down trial of Biddix is set to resume today.