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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Inside Ron DeSantis’ politicized removal of an elected prosecutor

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event in Doral, Fla., on March 1, 2023. The Florida governor accused a Democratic prosecutor of undermining public safety but a close examination of the episode reveals just how fueled it was by DeSantis’s political aims.

By Alexandra Berzon and Ken Bensinger

When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced last summer that he had taken the extraordinary step of removing a local prosecutor from his job, he cast his decision as a bold move to protect Floridians.

The prosecutor, Andrew H. Warren, a twice-elected state attorney for Hillsborough County and a Democrat, had signed a public pledge not to prosecute those who seek or provide abortions. Moreover, he was among a group of progressive prosecutors around the country who, in DeSantis’ words, think “they get to pick and choose which laws that they are enforcing.”

Those left-leaning prosecutors, he said, had “undermined public safety” and been “devastating to the rule of law.”

Left unsaid, however, was that DeSantis and his advisers had failed to find a connection between Warren’s policies and public safety in his community.

In fact, just the day before, the governor had removed from a draft of an executive order any mention of crime statistics justifying Warren’s suspension, after DeSantis’ lawyers lamented that they could find nothing in them to support the idea that Warren’s policies had done harm, according to internal documents and testimony.

As he travels the country promoting a new book and his expected presidential campaign, DeSantis repeatedly points to his ouster of Warren as an example of the way he has transformed Florida — and could transform the nation. He casts Warren as a rogue ideologue whose refusal to enforce the law demanded action.

Two weeks after his removal, Warren sued the governor in federal court seeking his reinstatement. The lawsuit, which Warren appealed after it was dismissed in January, produced a significant quantity of discovery, which The New York Times reviewed in detail.

Months before suspending Warren, DeSantis had ordered his staff to find progressive prosecutors who were letting criminals walk free. Under oath, his aides later acknowledged that they had deliberately avoided investigating Warren too closely, so that they would not tip him off and prompt him to reverse his policies. When contrary information did materialize, DeSantis and his lawyers dismissed or ignored it, the records show.

Only after Warren was removed did the governor’s aides seek records from Warren’s office that might help justify DeSantis’ action.

Although DeSantis’ move was cheered in the conservative news media as a victory in his war on “wokeness,” a federal judge ruled in January that the governor had violated Warren’s First Amendment rights and the Florida Constitution in a rush to judgment. “The actual facts,” Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote, “did not matter. All that was needed was a pretext.” DeSantis’ office, the judge said, had conducted a “one-sided inquiry” meant to target Warren. (The judge said he did not have the authority to reinstate Warren, who is appealing in state and federal court.)

Warren said he believed that DeSantis had disregarded the will of the voters in his county for political gain.

“He’s willing to abuse his power to attack his political enemies,” Warren said.

DeSantis, who declined to be interviewed, insists in his new book, “The Courage to Be Free,” that his action was justified by Warren’s public statements. He argues that prosecutors who want “to ‘reform’ the criminal justice system” should quit and run for the Legislature.

Midway through a meeting with his closest advisers in December 2021, DeSantis asked a pointed question: Did they know of any prosecutors in the state who weren’t enforcing the law?

A top DeSantis aide, Larry Keefe, set out to answer the governor’s question. He began by asking Florida sheriffs whether they knew of any progressive prosecutors. Several mentioned the state attorney from Hillsborough County. Communicating over encrypted text messages and personal email, Keefe assembled a dossier on Warren’s policies and charging decisions.

Warren was the only prosecutor he scrutinized, Keefe said later in a deposition: “All roads led to Mr. Warren.”

Warren, 46, was elected in 2016 promising to create a new unit to search for wrongful convictions, focus resources on prosecuting violent offenders, reduce prosecutions for first-time misdemeanors and curb the number of children charged as adults.

After DeSantis took office in 2019, Warren became a frequent critic. When the governor barred local governments from enacting their own COVID-19 restrictions, Warren called the order “weak and spineless.” In 2021, he sought to organize opposition to a DeSantis-backed law that restricted political protests. In January 2022, Warren instituted a policy that made prosecutions of pedestrians and bicyclists for resisting arrest an exception rather than the rule, responding to studies that show the charge disproportionately affected Black people.

Florida’s Constitution allows governors to suspend local officeholders for reasons including “malfeasance” or “neglect of duty” until the Legislature votes on whether to permanently remove or reinstate them. DeSantis was the first Florida governor in many decades known to have suspended an elected prosecutor over a policy difference.

For months, Keefe’s dossier on Warren failed to cross the threshold to take action against him, DeSantis’ lawyers later testified. Then, in June, after the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to an abortion, an advocacy group released a statement signed by Warren and 91 other prosecutors around the country.

In it, they vowed to “exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide or support abortions.”

Ryan Newman, the governor’s general counsel, and Ray Treadwell, Newman’s deputy, testified that the pledge was the evidence they needed. Warren had said he would not enforce abortion laws, and could therefore be considered negligent and incompetent.

The lawyers discussed asking Warren to clarify whether his pledge would apply to existing abortion restrictions. But they decided not to, one later testified, because they worried that this would have “tipped him off” and given Warren a chance to walk it back, short-circuiting their effort to remove him.

On July 26, Newman, Keefe and James Uthmeier, the governor’s chief of staff, met with DeSantis to present their plan, according to sworn deposition testimony.

The governor was initially skeptical, transcripts show. He questioned whether Warren could be removed based on his signed pledge alone, lacking evidence that he had declined to prosecute an abortion-related crime.

Newman argued that DeSantis should act while Warren’s refusal to prosecute was still hypothetical: It could be both impractical and unwise to wait to challenge Warren over a specific decision, Newman explained under oath at trial.

DeSantis was convinced. He asked for additional information about Warren’s record but gave a green light to charge ahead.

In December, during a trial over Warren’s removal, Hinkle, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, said the evidence suggested that the goal of the governor’s review of Warren’s record was really “to amass information that could help bring down Mr. Warren, not to find out how Mr. Warren actually runs the office.”

The day before he was suspended, Warren and his staff were putting the finishing touches on a major announcement set for the next day: indictments in two decades-old rape and murder cases.

Aides to DeSantis were planning a starkly different event, the legal records show.

Keefe was sending over talking points for Susan Lopez, a state judge who had agreed to replace Warren.

“Love it!” Lopez texted Keefe. “Sounds like me!”

A few minutes before 10 a.m. Aug. 4, Warren received an email notifying him that he had been suspended. He rushed to his office, but Keefe soon arrived with an armed sheriff’s deputy and ordered him to leave, according to testimony from Keefe.

With Warren out, the governor’s office stepped in. Keefe and Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications chief, had already discussed in text messages what Lopez’s first steps should be, planning for the new state attorney to issue a memo rescinding Warren’s prosecution policies.

A memo that Lopez sent out days later mirrored that plan, saying, “The Legislature makes the law and we, as prosecutors, enforce it.” (She testified that she did not recall consulting with anyone other than her chief of staff.)

As the controversy continued to generate headlines and Warren publicly blasted his dismissal, the Hillsborough County state attorney’s office received a curious piece of correspondence from the governor’s office, documents from a public records request show.

It was from Treadwell, the governor’s deputy general counsel, making his first request for information from the prosecutor’s office that might reveal whether Warren had done anything wrong.

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