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The DeSantis/Warren battle: Takeaways from a Tallahassee courtroom

Three days of testimony in the closely watched case revealed politics both Tampa and Tallahassee style.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, removed Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren in August. Warren was in federal court in Tallahassee last week to try to win his job back.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, removed Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren in August. Warren was in federal court in Tallahassee last week to try to win his job back. [ Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Last week’s trial of Hillsborough County’s suspended state attorney and his fight to get reinstated provided big moments and revelations.

Over three days in a federal courtroom, questions were raised about what drove Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to oust Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, a Democrat.

Then, as the trial wound to a close, Warren’s own chief of staff took the stand with testimony that appeared to undermine the core of Warren’s case.

It’s now up to U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle to decide: Were Warren’s signed pledges against prosecuting cases of abortion and transgender health care — and his office policies against pursuing certain low-level crimes — sufficient cause to remove him?

Or were Warren’s rights to free speech and prosecutorial discretion violated in a politically motived move, warranting his reinstatement?

Some takeaways:

Politics were present

Warren called his August suspension political theater orchestrated by a governor readying for a 2024 presidential run. DeSantis said it was simpler than that: Warren refused to enforce the law.

The trial underscored the role politics played in Warren’s removal.

DeSantis’ public safety czar Larry Keefe testified that in his inquiry into whether any Florida state attorneys were failing to enforce the law, all roads “led to Mr. Warren.” But Keefe said under cross-examination that he didn’t talk to victim’s rights groups or anyone in Warren’s office. He spoke nearly exclusively to Republicans, including Tampa donors and supporters.

Warren’s attorneys also pointed to tweets from the governor’s staff. One — the night before Warren’s suspension — predicted “the liberal media meltdown of the year.” Another called Warren the “Soros-backed” state attorney, a reference to George Soros, billionaire donor to progressive causes and a popular target among conservatives.

The governor himself edited an early draft of the suspension order to put “non-abortion infractions” before the subject of abortion. An early mention of Soros got edited out.

One document assessed pros and cons of removing Warren. A benefit could be the removal of “a leftist prosecutor.” The same document warned of a drawback: “Political battle is likely to increase Warren’s profile.” (The judge dismissed the significance of the memo, which DeSantis’ legal team said was written by a law school intern at the governor’s office and not shared around the office.)

DeSantis’ staff noted that Warren’s suspension garnered more than $2 million in “totally free earned media” for the governor.

The local sheriff played a prominent role

At a lunch last spring, a Republican friend in Tampa set up a phone call between Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister and Keefe. Chronister, unhappy with Warren not pursuing certain cases, said in a deposition that he’d already had his staff compile a list of cases Warren’s office had not prosecuted. He agreed to send the list to the governor’s office.

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According to the sworn deposition, the sheriff’s family hosted the governor and his family over the Independence Day holiday at Chronister’s in-laws’ property in Montana. Chronister is married to Nicole DeBartolo, daughter of businessman and developer Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. Chronister said he never had a direct discussion with the governor about Warren.

Chronister also recruited Tampa’s former police chief Brian Dugan.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times this week, Dugan said Chronister called him the day before Warren was ousted and asked if he would participate in a phone call with the governor’s office. Dugan had his own misgivings with the then-state attorney, calling him “nothing more than a politician” in the Times interview.

On the call with the governor’s office, Dugan expressed those frustrations. He said he learned of the plans to suspend Warren and agreed to appear at the news conference the next day. He and Chronister, along with other members of law enforcement, stood with the governor at what became a raucous announcement of Warren’s ouster.

Asked in his deposition why it was held at the sheriff’s office, Chronister said: “There wasn’t a reason for me not to host the event. The governor wanted to have it at the sheriff’s office.”

Florida Gov Ron DeSantis, right, listens as Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister speaks after the announcement of the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren Aug. 4 at the Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa.
Florida Gov Ron DeSantis, right, listens as Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister speaks after the announcement of the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren Aug. 4 at the Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Warren’s top aide became a big witness — against him

Warren’s chief of staff since 2017, Gary Weisman, now is working in the same job for his replacement, Susan Lopez. He took the stand and delivered a potential blow to Warren’s case.

Weisman said he advised his then-boss not to sign the abortion pledge.

“I thought it was bad for Mr. Warren ... and bad for the agency,” Weisman testified.

Warren has contended that the pledge, signed by progressive prosecutors nationwide, was constitutionally protected free speech and not office policy.

Two of his top prosecutors testified they didn’t think the pledges were office policy. They weren’t shared with state attorney’s office staff or codified as office policy.

Gary Weisman, left, was Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren's chief of staff before Warren was removed from office. He now works for Susan Lopez, right, who was appointed by the governor to replace Warren.
Gary Weisman, left, was Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren's chief of staff before Warren was removed from office. He now works for Susan Lopez, right, who was appointed by the governor to replace Warren. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Weisman, portrayed as Warren’s closest adviser in the office, saw it differently.

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

In the local buzz following Warren’s removal, even some Warren supporters questioned a state attorney putting his name on such pledges.

Judge Hinkle wasn’t shy

Prior to the trial, the judge seemed to telegraph some of his thinking about the case.

In one early ruling, he noted that with the possible exception of one sentence, nothing in the pledges Warren signed or his office policies “explicitly announced a blanket refusal to prosecute cases of any kind.”

Hinkle, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, also noted that the governor’s lawyers had not been able to cite an example of a crime Warren failed to prosecute.

Some of his questions during the trial could have been interpreted as favorable to Warren’s case. In an exchange with the governor’s lawyer, George Levesque, Hinkle asked if he could cite any Florida laws that criminalize gender-affirming care, which was the subject of one of Warren’s pledges.

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

Later, during Keefe’s testimony, the judge wondered why Keefe questioned mostly Republicans about Warren’s performance. Hinkle also wanted to know about people Keefe talked to who weren’t in law enforcement.

But at the trial’s conclusion, Hinkle cautioned the attorneys against reading too much into the questions he asked. He said his decision would take at least two weeks.

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

Times staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.