Andrew Warren’s chief of staff undercuts argument in DeSantis lawsuit

Warren’s chief of staff said he thought Warren’s pledge not to prosecute abortion crimes was policy.
Andrew Warren, bottom right, is seen leaving after a news conference Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Tallahassee. A federal judge is hearing a case in which Warren, who was ousted as Hillsborough state attorney by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is trying to get his job back.
Andrew Warren, bottom right, is seen leaving after a news conference Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Tallahassee. A federal judge is hearing a case in which Warren, who was ousted as Hillsborough state attorney by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is trying to get his job back. [ LAWRENCE MOWER | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2022|Updated Dec. 2, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Ousted Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren’s chief of staff told Warren not to sign a pledge that he wouldn’t prosecute abortions, according to testimony on Thursday, the final day in Warren’s three-day trial challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to remove him from office.

Attorneys for DeSantis and Warren made their closing arguments Thursday after hearing testimony from top officials in both the governor’s administration and the state attorney’s office. A ruling won’t come down for at least two weeks, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said.

During testimony Thursday, chief of staff Gary Weisman said that Warren consulted him often on public statements, including the June 24 letter from the left-leaning advocacy group Fair and Just Prosecution in which signees pledge not to prosecute abortion crimes.

“I thought it was bad for Mr. Warren … and bad for the agency,” said Weisman, whom Warren hired in 2017. Weisman, who was portrayed as Warren’s closest adviser in the office, took the letter to be official office policy, with the belief that the office would not prosecute any abortions.

“My view was it was an announcement that we weren’t going to prosecute cases under the new law,” Weisman said.

The testimony undercuts Warren’s central argument in his lawsuit against DeSantis.

Warren has argued that the abortion letter — and one from 2021 pledging not to prosecute crimes relating to transgender care — were not the office’s policies. The letters were not shared with office staff and were not codified into the office’s policies.

Two top prosecutors in the office have testified this week that they didn’t believe the letters were office policy, and one wasn’t aware of them until DeSantis cited them in his Aug. 4 removal of Warren from office.

Related: DeSantis’ office relied on GOP sheriffs, others in inquiry of Andrew Warren

DeSantis’ attorneys have argued that they seemed like the official policy since they bore Warren’s name and title. Regardless, they were evidence that Warren was unfit for office by pledging a “blanket” policy not to enforce certain crimes, they said.

Warren has argued that the letters were constitutionally protected free speech, and he’s not allowed to be punished for it.

Warren’s lawyers tried to challenge Weisman’s credibility, noting that he’s a registered Republican. They also mentioned that the person DeSantis chose to replace Warren, Suzy Lopez, gave him a “big hug” in the office lobby when she took over and told him that she couldn’t do the job without him. Weisman is still Lopez’s chief of staff.

At one point, the back-and-forth between Weisman and Warren attorney Jean-Jacques Cabou became so testy that Hinkle, appointed by former President Bill Clinton, intervened. “It’s getting a little chippy out there,” Hinkle said.

Weisman, who was called to testify by DeSantis’ attorneys, was also asked to recount Warren’s removal.

In the days after Warren was removed, Weisman asked the office’s chief investigator to try to retrieve Warren’s work-issued laptop and cellphone from Warren.

The investigator wrote a report about getting the laptop back, recounting what Warren told him. A portion of the report was displayed in court on Thursday.

“When he gets back to the office, ‘A lot of people are getting fired,’” the chief investigator wrote, recounting what Warren said.

Weisman testified that he was concerned that he could get fired any day, including if Warren was reinstated to the position.

Warren has argued this week that the abortion and transgender letters were not pledges not to prosecute crimes. Instead, they were broad statements of his political beliefs.

The multipage abortion-related letter — signed by prosecutors from across the country — was broad-ranging, but it included the statement that “we ... refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”

Warren said the official policy of the office was to judge criminal cases on a case-by-case basis, based on facts and evidence and threats to public safety.

But Weisman said he understood the statements to include a pledge not to prosecute abortion crimes.

Soon after the pledge was released, Weisman sent an email to Warren about an upcoming office meeting to discuss abortion-related issues.

At the time, Warren’s office, along with many other state attorneys, were named as defendants in a lawsuit challenging the 15-week abortion ban passed by the Legislature.

In Weisman’s email ahead of the meeting, he summarized that case but also mentioned the pledge Warren signed: “I also believe you already signed on to a letter or statement from FJP (indicating) you would not prosecute.”

DeSantis’ lawyers planned to call his controversial former spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, to testify. Pushaw, who’s now with DeSantis’ campaign, was in the courtroom, but attorneys apparently made a last-minute decision not to have her testify, so she never took the stand.

They did call to the stand Ryan Newman, the governor’s general counsel and the highest-ranking figure in the administration, to appear in court for the case.

Newman said he initially “wasn’t all that enthusiastic” about the idea of removing Warren.

“I had some trepidation at first,” he said, saying he wanted to wait until litigation challenging Florida’s 15-week abortion ban had played out.

But the governor’s public safety czar, Larry Keefe, was “beating down my door about this.”

Newman eventually agreed that the abortion pledge merited removal. The idea of a state attorney flatly denying to prosecute certain crimes was against state law and “essentially inviting lawlessness,” Newman testified.

“I just thought that was deeply wrong,” Newman said.

When he went to the governor to recommend removing Warren, DeSantis was initially reluctant, questioning whether a pledge made to another organization was really office policy, Newman said.

But Newman “prevailed on the governor” his position, and DeSantis agreed that he shouldn’t have to wait until Warren was presented with an abortion-related crime to act, Newman said.

After each side made their closing arguments, Hinkle said his schedule made it unlikely that he was going to be able to rule within the next two weeks. He told attorneys not to read into his questioning, which was generally tougher on DeSantis’ side.

“I don’t know who’s going to win,” he said.