Meet the man in charge of DeSantis’ voter fraud cases

Nicholas B. Cox isn’t one for the limelight, but his office makes him a powerful player in state justice and politics.
Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox, right, stands beside former Attorney General Pam Bondi during a 2018 news conference in Tampa.
Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox, right, stands beside former Attorney General Pam Bondi during a 2018 news conference in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Feb. 3|Updated Feb. 5

TAMPA — Nick Cox sat in a Tampa courtroom last month, watching quietly as a public defender argued, in essence, that he had no business being there.

The case was that of Tony Patterson. He’s one of 17 people that Gov. Ron DeSantis accused of voter fraud because he’s a felon who still managed to cast a ballot in the 2020 election. Like the others, Patterson’s case was brought by the office of statewide prosecution. Cox is the statewide prosecutor.

Related: Police cameras show confusion, anger over DeSantis' voter fraud arrests

Cox, whose office handles cases that involve more than one judicial district, did not have authority to prosecute an alleged crime limited to just Hillsborough County, the public defender argued. Cox told the court that Hillsborough’s state attorney, Susan Lopez, would simply file the case under her office’s authority while naming his office, keeping his people in charge of the case.

Although his is a powerful job, it doesn’t get much attention. Cox, 59, recently secured another four-year term to do it with little fanfare. When he reapplied for the job, he was the only applicant.

“I love my job,” he said in an interview with a judicial nominating commission last month. “I am convinced that being the statewide prosecutor is probably one of the best jobs in Florida. You can have such a great impact. And I feel like we have.”

Nick Cox speaks during a Zoom interview Jan. 5 with the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.
Nick Cox speaks during a Zoom interview Jan. 5 with the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. [ Dan Sullivan | Times ]

Although Cox’s reach extends throughout the state, he is a product of Tampa. A graduate of Jesuit High School and the University of South Florida, his only time away from the area were the two years he spent in law school at Washburn University in Kansas.

He worked as an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County from 1988 to 1997. He later spent time in the attorney generals’ office and as a professor at Stetson University College of Law. Outside of law, he worked about four years as a regional director for the Department of Children and Families.

Cox told the commission he tried working in private practice briefly and found it wasn’t for him. He prefers government service.

“I really enjoy being a prosecutor,” he told the commission. “I really believe we have an opportunity here to try to do the right thing, every day we go to work.”

He became the statewide prosecutor in 2011, serving at the direction of former Attorney General Pam Bondi. He has continued to serve under Attorney General Ashley Moody, who began in 2018.

Cox is married to Karen Cox, a former prosecutor in Tampa, who now works for the Tampa firm Appleton Reiss. On the side, the couple operates three coin laundry businesses in Tampa, according to his application for the statewide prosecutor position.

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The Attorney General’s Office declined a request to interview Cox for this story.

The statewide prosecutor’s office includes about 60 lawyers who work in eight offices around the state. Cox said he thinks he has done well recruiting strong personnel. The best thing he can do, he said, is get out of the way “and let them practice their art.”

His office has grown in recent years, with attorneys added to tackle pill mills, gaming cases and, notably, election fraud.

But Cox didn’t mention election fraud when commissioners asked about his priorities.

His office’s top two focal points, he said, are human trafficking and fraud cases. In particular, he said, the attorney general has prioritized computer fraud and scams that victimize senior citizens.

He occasionally handles cases in the courtroom himself. Last year, he said, he handled a trial in a securities fraud case.

“I believe in the system,” he said. “It’s not hard for me to stay in it.”

Although he seemed steadfast in the face of a challenge to his office’s jurisdiction to prosecute Patterson, Cox’s office ultimately dropped the voter fraud charges. But a similar Hillsborough case remains active.

Nathan Hart was also among the 17 people arrested in August, accused of voting in the 2020 election despite a prior felony conviction. Again, the Hillsborough public defender’s office has said Cox’s office should not be the one to prosecute the case, as the alleged crime did not overlap judicial circuits.

A judge has rejected the argument, declining a request from Hart’s defense to dismiss the case because Cox’s office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute it.

How the case resolves itself may be for a Hillsborough County jury to decide. Hart, in a hearing this week, rejected an offer from one of Cox’s prosecutors, Nathaniel Bahill, for six months’ probation.

“I don’t think that I knowingly did anything wrong,” Hart said.

The case remains set next week for a trial. It’s not clear if Cox will be there. But it’s certain to be a case he and others will watch closely.