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Hillsborough State Attorney race reflects philosophical differences

Andrew Warren, a Democrat elected as the county’s top prosecutor in 2016, faces a reelection challenge from Mike Perotti, a lawyer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

TAMPA — In the four years since he became Hillsborough County’s top prosecutor, Andrew Warren has cultivated a personal brand of progressive criminal justice. Now vying for reelection, he frequently touts a list of reforms: an expansion of diversion programs for juveniles an adults; a program to take guns away from people who commit domestic violence; and a conviction review unit to root out wrongful convictions.

“We have made a huge difference here in Hillsborough County,” he says.

Mike Perotti isn’t against all these things. But he believes Hillsborough County can do better. Amid the waves of praise Warren has received for his work, there has been quiet criticism to which Perotti, a staff attorney for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, has given voice.

Warren, a Democrat, and Perotti, a Republican, will face each other in the November election for Hillsborough State Attorney. There is much on which they agree, but their words on the campaign trial reflect two distinct philosophies of criminal justice. Their respective backgrounds also give each of them different perspectives on the system.

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Mike Perotti, attorney for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office who is challenging State Attorney Andrew Warren in the 2020 election poses for a portrait after a campaign event at the Tampa Yacht Club on Wednesday September 9, 2020 in Tampa.
Mike Perotti, attorney for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office who is challenging State Attorney Andrew Warren in the 2020 election poses for a portrait after a campaign event at the Tampa Yacht Club on Wednesday September 9, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Perotti, 48, is a Tampa native, whose family has a history in law enforcement. His grandfather and his father both worked for the Sheriff’s Office. Perotti didn’t set out for a career in law enforcement, but circumstance seemed to draw him that way.

An only child, his parents saved money to send him to Academy of the Holy Names and later Jesuit High School. He attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., before transferring to the University of Florida. He earned an English degree, then continued at UF for law school.

Upon passing the Bar exam in 1999, he became an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County. He helped prosecute domestic violence cases and recalls seeing “the cycle” of violence and working with victims who sometimes were reluctant to testify.

He later joined the Sheriff’s Office as in-house counsel. In 2006, Perotti left the sheriff’s office to help start a commercial litigation firm with his lifelong friends Chris Brewer and Luis Martinez-Monfort. Both attest to his sharp intellect and skill as a litigator.

In 2010, Perotti got called to a meeting with then-Sheriff David Gee. He was told the Sheriff’s Office was looking for new leadership in its jail division. There had been a number of high-profile problems in the jail — one involved a deputy who was caught on video dumping an inmate out of a wheelchair.

He attended a police academy and became a sworn law enforcement officer. He was then appointed as a major in charge of the Orient Road Jail. Six years later, he was promoted to the rank of colonel and oversaw the entire Hillsborough County jail system.

“The guy’s completely driven by right and wrong,” said Ken Davis, a retired sheriff’s colonel who worked with Perotti running the jail. “He’s the kind of guy who can disagree with you, but when the conversation is over, you’re not going to be upset about it.”

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Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren speaks in February at the opening of the 116th annual Florida State Fair in Tampa.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren speaks in February at the opening of the 116th annual Florida State Fair in Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Born in Gainesville, Warren studied economics and politics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts before obtaining a law degree from Columbia Law School in New York City. The bulk of his professional experience was as a prosecutor for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He was part of a special unit that helped prosecute complex financial crimes throughout the nation.

His biggest case was that of Allen Stanford, the former Texas financier who was convicted of orchestrating one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history, with losses estimated at more than $7 billion. Warren was one of three prosecutors who handled the case at trial. Stanford is now serving a 110-year prison sentence.

Warren, 43, came to Tampa in 2013, a move born from a desire to put down roots as he and his wife raised their two daughters. As he attended community events, people heard what he did for a living and frequently asked if he was interested in running for office.

He successfully challenged State Attorney Mark Ober, the longtime Republican incumbent, in 2016, winning by a narrow margin.

Warren speaks of viewing criminal cases “not as a person to be prosecuted, but as a problem to be solved.”

Facing reelection, his approach has been to campaign without campaigning. He frequently turns up in local news stories, staging news conferences and issuing press releases and making media appearances to highlight various things his office is doing.

Perhaps most notable, he created a conviction review unit, whose task is to ensure the innocent aren’t being sent to prison. The unit recently produced a major success when it unearthed new evidence that cleared Robert DuBoise, a Tampa who had been in prison since 1983 for a murder he did not commit.

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Perotti boasts the support of Ashley Moody, Florida’s attorney general and a former Hillsborough circuit judge, whose family has deep roots in the local legal and political community.

Warren has the support of Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner and the only statewide elected Democrat.

Warren also has drawn the support of a number of elected officials in Hillsborough. Among them is the county’s Republican sheriff, Chad Chronister. In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Chronister called Warren a “partner,” saying his help has been essential in crafting diversion programs.

“We’ve seen recidivism rates very low in our adult and juvenile diversion programs,” Chronister said. “It’s keeping people out of the criminal justice system.”

Perotti has trailed Warren in campaign fundraising, assembling a campaign chest of a little more than $100,000, in contrast to Warren’s more than $400,000.

While Warren frequently draws praise for his approach to criminal justice, Perotti says that same approach has exacerbated violent crime.

He points to individual cases as proof. He has assembled a list of a half-dozen people now charged with homicides and shootings who had histories of repeat arrests for violent crimes.

“What I’m seeing and hearing from within that office and outside from defense attorneys is that the notion of trying to get real sanctions against dangerous offenders has really not been at a premium anymore,” Perotti said. “It becomes an afterthought.”

He has also taken issue with Warren’s office’s handling of domestic violence cases. He points to statistics showing that in the past two years, about half of the roughly 12,000 domestic violence cases were not pursued.

Warren counters that Perotti is cherry-picking cases and numbers. On the campaign trial, Warren frequently mentions that the overall crime rate has decreased in Hillsborough County in recent years. He also points out that domestic violence cases are among the toughest to prosecute because victims often are reluctant to cooperate.

“His criticism reflects a lack of understanding of how our system works,” Warren said.

Warren has his own criticisms of Perotti, pointing out that he was in charge of the jail in 2018 when a Times investigation said that the Sheriff’s Office under-reported the number of inmates who die in its custody. He claimed that Perotti was demoted as a result.

Perotti says that’s not true. He gets paid the same now as he did then. He said that if his leadership had been problematic, the sheriff could have gotten rid of him.

“The people should always have a choice,” Perotti said. “I will talk about facts and what I believe. And I will leave it to anyone else to talk about what they do or don’t like about a person.”

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