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Challenger to Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober not happy about collapse of federal Lifeline case he once prosecuted

Published Jan. 7, 2016

TAMPA — An aspiring Hillsborough state attorney expressed disappointment and harsh words Wednesday after the collapse of a U.S. Justice Department fraud case he helped shepherd for two years.

"I'm disappointed whenever scam artists who steal millions of dollars from taxpayers go free," said former federal prosecutor and newly announced political candidate Andrew H. Warren.

The case in question? Federal authorities had alleged, since 2014, that three businessmen siphoned $32 million from Lifeline, the nation's low-income phone subsidy program. In the end, no one was convicted.

The last blow to the case came Wednesday, when Chief U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday acquitted phone company owner and car dealer Thomas Biddix of mail fraud without need of hearing a defense. The judge agreed with the Melbourne man's attorney that the government had not proved its case.

By then, an expected seven-week trial had been busted down to a day and a half.

Charges against former codefendants Leonard Solt of Land O'Lakes and Kevin Brian Cox of Arlington, Tenn., were dismissed Monday at the prosecution's request, as were additional counts against Biddix.

That happened after the discovery of information that left prosecutors needing more time to comb through 1.5 million audio files amassed in the case.

"Taking complicated white collar crimes to court is not for the faint of heart," said Warren, who announced Monday that he will challenge Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober this fall. "There are times when a prosecutor must be willing to pursue a case supported by evidence even at the risk of losing, or not pursue a case when the evidence is in doubt."

He said he was already off the case when problems were discovered. The charges revolved around the men's ties to a company called Associated Telecommunications Management Service. They were accused of overstating the number of customers who qualified for subsidies.

Biddix alone was accused of using the mail to commit fraud as he obtained $5 million in stimulus money from a Brevard County jobs program to staff a phone service center. That was the count dismissed Wednesday.

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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