The second day of the federal court trial over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ move to suspend Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren saw battles between the sides over the reasoning behind the move.
Specifically, did DeSantis oust Warren because he was a left-leaning, George Soros-backed prosecutor? Or was it because the Governor can’t abide prosecutors who say they won’t enforce a law?
Warren’s attorneys played a clip from an interview DeSantis did with Fox News personality Tucker Carlson the evening of Aug. 4, the day he suspended Warren.
“Well, Tucker, you’ve documented the destruction that we’ve seen with these Soros prosecutors around the country where they take it upon themselves to determine which laws should be followed and which laws should not be followed,” DeSantis said after Carlson asked why he suspended Warren.
Warren filed suit after being suspended, alleging the move violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and asking the court to reinstate him as State Attorney.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ top spokeswoman, said talking points that highlighted Soros and referred to Warren as a “Soros-backed prosecutor” weren’t reflective of DeSantis’ reasoning in suspending Warren. She disputed the suggestion from Warren’s attorneys that DeSantis acted with partisan animus.
“Primarily it was for negligence of duty,” Fenske said about the move to suspend Warren.
Judge Robert Hinkle asked Fenske directly if DeSantis would suspend an official who declared they wouldn’t enforce the law if the official was a Republican. Fenske said she’d have to see the facts of the underlying case.
Earlier on Wednesday, before Fenske took the stand, Warren’s attorneys had pointed to statements made by Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma in January 2020, who said he wouldn’t enforce an assault weapons ban if a constitutional amendment was approved by voters. The effort to put such an amendment failed to get on the ballot.
Lawyers for DeSantis emphasized that only the executive order suspending Warren contains the Governor’s reasoning for the move — which doesn’t contain references to Soros.
But Hinkle also asked Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ Public Safety Czar who conducted the review of state attorneys that resulted in the Warren suspension, whether he talked to any Democrats in his review. Keefe testified Tuesday that he spoke with numerous law enforcement officials, including Sheriffs and State Attorneys, in his review, and several reported that Warren had a poor reputation among law enforcement for “picking and choosing” which laws to enforce.
Keefe said he spoke to Orange County Sheriff John Mina, a Democrat, who had similar complaints about Orange State Attorney Monique Worrell. Under cross examination from DeSantis’ attorneys, Keefe also noted he didn’t ask about the political affiliation of the people he spoke to during his review.
Hinkle pointedly asked whether Keefe talked to anyone during his review, other than Mina, who wasn’t involved in Florida Republican politics. He previously said he spoke with Preston and Rex Farrior, major Republican donors, as well as Martin Garcia, who led Pam Bondi’s campaign for Attorney General in 2010.
The executive order suspending Warren pointed to two pledges he signed. One was in July 2021 declaring he wouldn’t bring cases against doctors who provide health care to minors who wish to transition to another gender.
Another was in June, just after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, eliminating the right to an abortion and sending the issue of abortion to the states. The pledge, signed by dozens of prosecutors around the country, said they would not prosecute doctors or women on abortion-related charges.
Warren’s attorneys have stressed there is no Florida law banning transgender care for minors, and Warren testified Tuesday that he never received any case related to abortion in his time in office.
Fair and Just Prosecution, a criminal justice reform advocacy and research group supported by Soros, organized both pledges. Soros donated to the Democratic Party in the past, which donated to Warren’s campaign. But those points weren’t included in DeSantis’ executive order, which focused on the pledges not to prosecute certain crimes.
Warren’s attorneys highlighted Twitter posts by Kyle Lamb and Christina Pushaw, who worked in DeSantis’ communications office at the time, about the Warren suspension announcement.
Pushaw teased the announcement the day before on Twitter, stating, “MAJOR announcement tomorrow morning from Gov. Ron DeSantis. Prepare for the liberal media meltdown of the year. Everyone get some rest tonight.”
As DeSantis was making the announcement, Lamb tweeted the Governor was suspending “Soros-backed 13th Circuit state attorney Andrew Warren for neglecting his duties as he pledges to not to uphold the laws of the state.”
Fenske downplayed the importance of the Twitter posts, noting that Lamb was a “low-level staffer” who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record on behalf of DeSantis and Pushaw was reprimanded by DeSantis himself over her tweet because they didn’t want to “sensationalize” the issue and focus his reasoning for the suspension on the executive order.
Warren’s attorneys noted another tweet from Pushaw the day of the announcement — and after she was reprimanded — that showed the muppet Elmo in front of a large flame (a common meme) as a response to a tweet linking to a story about Warren being escorted out of his office by police officers. In response, Fenske downplayed the importance of Twitter altogether.
“It’s a meme. It’s Twitter so it’s a little more free-flowing than official work,” Fenske said.