TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — In a federal trial this week, ousted Hillsborough County state attorney Andrew Warren was the first to take the stand. Warren testified that he was informed about his suspension in an email just before the governor's public safety czar Larry Keefe appeared at his office door.
Governor Ron DeSantis officially suspended Warren in August after a statewide investigation into whether individual prosecutors across the state were upholding and enforcing Florida’s laws. At the announcement, Florida Representative Mike Beltran explained how Warren tried to adjudicate what laws would and would not be enforced – a role reserved for the courts through a separation of powers in the Florida Constitution.
A SOROS-FUNDED PROSECUTOR
On August 17, The Florida Standard broke a story revealing Warren's connection to Fair and Just Prosecutions, an activist group funded by billionaire George Soros. According to documents obtained through a FOIA request by The Florida Standard, Warren and his staff made at least six trips across the country to attend events held by the activist group – travel paid for by local taxpayers back in Florida.
According to a Tampa Bay Times article published in 2020, Soros contributed to Warren’s campaign. “We understand that he gave money to the state [Democratic] party,” Warren said in the article. “And the state party money ... went to support different candidates. And I have very little insight into the amount of money he gave, who it went to, etc.”
Warren sued DeSantis in federal court in a surprise move, citing a violation of his First Amendment rights. But attorneys for the governor contend, “The reason the governor acted was because Mr. Warren neglected his duties and demonstrated incompetence,” State Solicitor General Henry Whitaker told the judge.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said in a pre-trial hearing, “I can't reliably determine the facts at this point.” Hinkle granted DeSantis’ motion to dismiss parts of the lawsuit accusing the governor of violating the Florida Constitution, explaining that any remedy by a federal court on that issue “doesn't work.”
However, the judge refused to dismiss Warren's lawsuit entirely. “I think it's clear that the complaint states First Amendment claims in which relief can be granted,” Hinkle said.
WARREN MAKES HIS CASE
Warren testified on Tuesday that he is challenging the suspension because he wants “to be able to do the job that I was elected to” and so that voters would “have their rights protected.”
Warren spent more than three hours, along with his attorneys, trying to make his case that as a state prosecutor, he never established any “blanket policies” to refrain from prosecuting select crimes, as accused by the governor.
When Governor DeSantis issued his Executive Order suspending Warren, he cited two letters from the national advocacy group Fair and Just Prosecution. Warren signed the letters as a pledge not to prosecute cases involving abortion or transgender health care.
“AN IMMEDIATE, DIRECT HAZARD”
Warren also “had a reputation as a state attorney who was hostile and antagonistic” to law enforcement, Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, told the judge. The proliferation of those policies would be “an immediate, direct hazard to the people of the state of Florida,” Keefe said.
“It was that profound. It was that grave. It was that attention-getting,” Keefe said. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and former Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan were especially critical of Warren, according to Keefe.
“He [Warren] pledged not to enforce the law, in a blanket policy,” DeSantis’ attorney George Levesque said Tuesday during the trial in Tallahassee. According to Levesque, Warren’s actions were illegal – equal to a neglect of duty warranting suspension.
REFUSING TO PROSECUTE CRIMES
Levesque told the judge that the letters signed by Warren gave the impression that Warren was refusing to prosecute crimes. For example, the abortion-related letter stated, “we ... refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”
An exhibit in the lawsuit showed a Tampa Bay television reporter asking Warren for comment about “not prosecuting abortion crimes.” Levesque said that the public had no way of knowing the difference between the official policy of the state attorney’s office and Warren’s personal opinion.
Warren refused to admit that the letters even included a refusal to prosecute crimes. Instead, he told the judge that any official policy would bear the state attorney’s office letterhead. Anyone in doubt “can ask,” Warren said.
The trial is expected to conclude this week. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle has not said when he plans to issue a ruling.