‘You’ve been suspended.’ Ousted Tampa prosecutor testifies in DeSantis trial

Andrew Warren was the first witness called in the federal trial in which he hopes to be reinstated as Hillsborough County’s state attorney.
Suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren speaks to reporters before a federal court hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tallahassee.
Suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren speaks to reporters before a federal court hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tallahassee. [ LAWRENCE MOWER | Times ]
Published Nov. 29, 2022|Updated Nov. 30, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren told a judge Tuesday that he learned he was suspended through an email — and minutes later, from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “public safety czar,” Larry Keefe.

The Aug. 4 email said, “You’ve been suspended,” Warren testified on the first day of a federal trial in which Warren hopes to be reinstated.

Warren is suing DeSantis in a case that’s expected to provide a rare window into the inner workings of the governor’s office. Attorneys for both sides spent an hour giving opening statements Tuesday morning to U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle before Warren took the witness stand. He discussed his legal background and the policies of his office, and recounted the moment he learned he’d been pulled from the office to which he was twice elected.

Upon seeing the email, Warren said, he walked out of a grand jury proceeding he was monitoring and went to his office to confer with his chief of staff, Gary Weisman. A few minutes later, he got a knock on his door.

Keefe was there with two sheriff’s deputies, including a major that Warren knew was in charge of courthouse security. Keefe introduced himself and handed Warren the governor’s suspension order.

Warren asked if he could review it first, but Keefe refused, Warren testified.

“He said, ‘You cannot have a chance to review this. You have to leave immediately,’” Warren said.

The sheriff’s major was apologetic, Warren recalled, referring to Warren by his first name.

“I’m sorry, Andrew, you need to go,” Warren recalled him saying.

He saved some files on his computer, grabbed his briefcase and walked out the door without grabbing any of his other belongings, he said.

Related: 4 highlights from Day 1 in Warren v. DeSantis trial in Tallahassee

The trial is expected to last at least to the end of this week and feature testimony from multiple high-level officials in the DeSantis administration. The governor’s spokespeople and lawyers have been called as witnesses.

At issue is why DeSantis decided to remove Warren from office on Aug. 4, which many have considered an unusual overreach of the governor’s powers.

The governor cited two letters from the national advocacy group Fair and Just Prosecution that Warren signed pledging not to prosecute cases involving abortion or transgender health care.

Warren’s lawyers are making a simple argument: The statements he signed were protected speech under the First Amendment. Because the statements were protected, DeSantis couldn’t use them to punish him.

DeSantis’ lawyers argue that they legitimately believed Warren wouldn’t prosecute particular crimes.

Warren’s statements that he could choose not to prosecute certain crimes weren’t protected by the First Amendment because he was acting as a government official, DeSantis’ lawyers say. Warren signed each statement with his official title: “State Attorney, 13th Judicial Circuit (Tampa), Florida.”

“He pledged not to enforce the law, in a blanket policy,” DeSantis’ attorney, George Levesque, said Tuesday.

That made Warren’s actions illegal, equaling a neglect of duty that merited suspension, he said.

Levesque said the letters gave the impression that Warren — and the dozens of other prosecutors across the country who signed the letters — were refusing to prosecute crimes. The abortion-related letter stated, “we ... refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”

Levesque noted that records in the lawsuit showed a Tampa Bay television reporter asked Warren for comment at the time about “not prosecuting abortion crimes.”

“For the public, how are they to know what is the official policy of the state attorney’s office, and what is not?” Levesque asked.

Warren, who refused to admit the letters even included a refusal to prosecute crimes, said the official policy would bear the state attorney’s office letterhead.

Anyone in doubt, Warren said, “can ask.”

Letters weren’t official policy

DeSantis may have believed Warren was acting as a government official, but in reality, Warren was not, his lawyers said.

The governor’s team had no examples of Warren refusing to prosecute abortion-related crimes. And the state doesn’t have any crimes on the books related to gender-affirming care.

Hinkle, in one of the only challenges to attorneys on Tuesday morning, noted the discrepancy, asking Levesque if he would cite the specific criminal laws Warren pledged not to prosecute.

“I concede, there is no criminal law that addresses transgender,” Levesque said.

The letters Warren signed weren’t the policy in his office. On Tuesday, Jeria Wilds, the chief of the office’s problem-solving courts section, testified that she was unaware of the memos until DeSantis removed Warren. Kimberly Hindman, chief assistant of the office’s felony division, testified Tuesday that she was aware of the abortion memo because Weisman had briefly mentioned it in an executive staff meeting, but it had no effect on the office.

Had DeSantis’ office simply picked up the phone, Warren’s lawyers say, they would have learned that there was no blanket refusal to prosecute certain crimes. The office’s policy was to evaluate each case individually, and much of Warren’s testimony Tuesday was about the procedures for changing certain policies.

Warren did adopt policies against prosecuting cases based on bicycle stops and other low-level offenses, believing them to disproportionately target Black Hillsborough County residents. But even that policy had caveats: Prosecutors could still charge someone for driving with a suspended license or panhandling, for example, if prosecutors had “significant public safety concerns.”

Keefe testifies

Warren’s lawyers have argued that he was targeted by DeSantis for political reasons.

Although DeSantis said on Tucker Carlson’s show after the Aug. 4 news conference that the state did a “thorough review” of all prosecutors, Keefe, who did the review, said Tuesday that he “didn’t consider it to be an investigation.”

During a meeting in December, DeSantis turned to Keefe and asked if he knew of any prosecutors who weren’t pursuing the law, Keefe testified. The governor has consistently railed against “woke” prosecutors.

Keefe said he didn’t know of any, so he set out to find out.

One of his first calls was to the Florida Sheriff’s Association — a political organization that regularly sides with Republicans, including DeSantis. He also spoke with prosecutors in various parts of the state.

Warren, Keefe testified, quickly became the top target. Warren “had a reputation as a state attorney who was hostile and antagonistic” to law enforcement, he said.

If Warren’s policies were allowed to proliferate across the state, police told Keefe, it would be “an immediate, direct hazard to the people of the state of Florida.”

“It was that profound. It was that grave. It was that attention-getting,” Keefe said.

Former Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister were particularly critical, he said.

One of Warren’s attorneys, Jean-Jacques Cabou, asked Keefe if he spoke with anyone in Hillsborough County who wasn’t in law enforcement.

Hinkle quickly interrupted: “I need to know names, and what people said.”

Keefe said he spoke with Tampa brothers Preston and Rex Farrior, who have donated thousands of dollars to GOP politicians, including $20,000 to DeSantis, and Tampa lawyer Martin Garcia, who was chair of Republican Pam Bondi’s successful campaign for Florida attorney general in 2010. (Garcia’s daughter, a federal prosecutor, was considered as a potential senior member of the office after DeSantis ousted Warren, Keefe testified.)

“I knew all of them,” Keefe said.

Despite Hinkle’s request, Keefe was not asked by Warren’s lawyers what those people told him, although Keefe is set to resume questioning Wednesday morning.

Cabou did ask whether Keefe spoke to Tampa’s current police chief, anyone in Warren’s office, or any victims’ rights groups about Warren’s performance.

Keefe said he did not.

DeSantis ‘not particularly enthusiastic’

When lawyers brought their case for suspending Warren to DeSantis, he was “not particularly enthusiastic” to the idea, his general counsel, Ryan Newman, said in a deposition. DeSantis had concerns about whether pledging not to prosecute a crime merited a suspension. But he was won over, Newman said, by the argument that if Warren was pledging not to prosecute murders, for example, that would clearly merit suspension.

Related: DeSantis initially not particularly enthusiastic about ousting Andrew Warren, deposition says

Politics — or public perception — played some part in the decision, records in the case show.

On an early draft of the executive order to suspend Warren, DeSantis downplayed the mention of abortion. In a blue felt pen, DeSantis wrote, “non-abortion infractions first,” and, in another place, “put before abortion.”

An early draft of the order, written by Keefe, also mentioned George Soros, the billionaire Democratic donor who has been a boogeyman for conservatives.

Records show his staff also drafted an extensive list of “benefits” and “drawbacks” for each of the governor’s options, such as whether to issue a statement or do nothing at all against Warren.

One of the three benefits of suspending Warren outright, they wrote, was “A leftist prosecutor is removed from a position of power.” One of the drawbacks was, “Political battle is likely to increase Warren’s profile.”

Levesque said Tuesday that the memo that included the benefits and drawbacks was written by an “unpaid legal intern” and included “glaring legal errors” and was dismissed by DeSantis’ top lawyers.

The night before Warren was suspended, DeSantis’ then-official spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, tweeted to “prepare for the liberal media meltdown of the year.” Pushaw, who now works for his campaign, “was taken to the proverbial woodshed” by DeSantis, Levesque said Tuesday.

Privately, DeSantis’ spokespeople were cheering his appearances on Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson’s shows, while publicly trying to appear professional.

During DeSantis’ raucous news conference in August, they were displeased with tweets by Kyle Lamb, a former sports blogger-turned-data analyst for DeSantis with tens of thousands of Twitter followers. DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, texted Lamb to “cease all tweets.”

“I know you’re just trying to help, but the boss is not pleased with the sensationalism of this overly legal proceeding,” Uthmeier texted Lamb, copies of the text messages show.

DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske shared a screenshot of Uthmeier’s text with Pushaw and another DeSantis spokesperson, Bryan Griffin, and texted, “Just between us.”

“So let’s tread lightly and let the press sensationalize it through our facts and us walking the line,” Fenske texted them.

Warren’s attorneys also noted Tuesday that DeSantis’ communications staff privately celebrated the more than $2 million in “totally free earned media” from Warren’s suspension.