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Warren v. DeSantis heads to trial in Tallahassee

Hillsborough’s ousted state attorney gets his day in court against the governor who removed him from office.
 
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, left, sued Gov. Ron DeSantis in federal court after the governor suspended him from office.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, left, sued Gov. Ron DeSantis in federal court after the governor suspended him from office. [ 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 recalled as he testified on the first day of a federal trial in which he 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 before 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’d been monitoring. He went to his office to confer with his chief of staff, Gary Weisman. A few minutes later, there was a knock at his door.

Keefe was there with two sheriff’s deputies, one of them a major 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, 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.

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

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

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 the governor’s motivation for the suspension, which some 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. His lawyers argue that they legitimately believed Warren wouldn’t prosecute particular crimes.

Warren’s lawyers are making a simple argument: The statements he signed were protected speech under the First Amendment.

The governor’s lawyers counter that the statements were not protected because he was acting as a government official. The documents bore 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 in court. That constituted a neglect of duty, he said, meriting suspension.

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.

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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, and some top prosecutors in the office have testified that they were unaware the memos existed until DeSantis removed Warren.

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.”

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

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. One tweet proclaimed that “we” were suspending the “Soros-backed” state attorney. 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.

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.

Lawyers for both sides in recent weeks deposed 14 witnesses. They include several members of the governor’s staff, prosecutors and staff in Warren’s office, and Susan Lopez, the county judge who DeSantis appointed to replace Warren.

DeSantis himself has resisted the prospect of being called to the witness stand. Warren’s lawyers have agreed not to call him in their case in chief, but it’s still possible they might try to call him in a rebuttal portion of the case.

One witness who won’t appear live: Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister. Lawyers for the sheriff last week asked that he be excused from having to testify. But given his involvement in Warren’s removal — he worked with the governor’s office and stood by DeSantis’ side for the announcement that Warren was out — what he had to say in a lengthy deposition earlier this month will be presented as evidence in court.

In the deposition, the sheriff said he had lunch one day last spring with Preston Farrior, a friend who works for the Ferman car enterprise, at Casa Santo Stefano in Ybor City, a Sicilian restaurant popular with politicians and the city’s powerful.

At the end of their lunch, Farrior asked Chronister if he would “jump on a quick call” with Keefe.

Keefe asked “if we had any type of difficulties with our state attorney prosecuting cases.” Chronister told Keefe he was already compiling cases he thought Warren should have pursued and agreed to send them to Keefe.

Testimony continued Tuesday afternoon and was expected to begin again Wednesday. However the judge ultimately rules, it’s anticipated that the losing side will appeal.