DeSantis’ office relied on GOP sheriffs, others in inquiry of Andrew Warren

TALLAHASSEE — On the first day of the trial in which ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren is trying to get his job back, a top official for Gov. Ron DeSantis testified that he did a thorough job figuring out that Warren was a troublingly progressive prosecutor who was “hostile and antagonistic” to law enforcement and needed to be booted from office.

On Wednesday morning, however, Warren’s attorneys pounced during their cross-examination of public safety czar Larry Keefe to point out holes and omissions in his research, including the fact that, outside of the Orange County sheriff, he talked to only Republicans while doing his research on DeSantis’ behalf.

The questioning at one point prompted US District Judge Robert Hinkle to ask Keefe: “You can’t give me the name of a single Democrat you talked to besides the sheriff of Orange County?”

That’s correct, Keefe replied, but he clarified that he didn’t know, and didn’t try to find out, anyone’s political affiliation.

“My wife is a Democrat,” Keefe added.

Keefe said one of his first calls was to the Florida Sheriff’s Association—a political organization that regularly sides with Republicans, including DeSantis. (The association filed a brief supporting Warren’s suspension.) He also spoke with Republican sheriffs and prosecutors across the state and Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody.

He said he talked to Orange County Sheriff John Mina, who knew of Warren’s “reputation” as a “(George) Soros-progressive prosecutor,” referring to the billionaire liberal donor. And he said former Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister were critical of Warren.

If Warren’s policies were allowed to proliferate across the state, Keefe said law enforcement officials told him, he would pose “an immediate, direct hazard to the people of the state of Florida.”

One of Warren’s attorneys, Jean-Jacques Cabou, asked Keefe whether he spoke to Tampa’s current police chief, or former police Chief Jane Castor, or spoke with anyone in Warren’s office, or any victims’ rights groups about Warren’s performance.

Keefe said he did not.

Related: 4 highlights from day 1 in Warren v. DeSantis trial in Tallahassee

Hinkle, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, asked Keefe if he spoke with anyone in Hillsborough County who wasn’t in law enforcement.

Keefe said he spoke with Tampa brothers Preston and Rex Farrior, who have donated thousands of dollars to GOP politicians, including $20,000 to DeSantis, and Tampa lawyer Martin Garcia, who was chairperson of Republican Pam Bondi’s successful campaign for Florida attorney general in 2010. ( Garcia’s daughter, a federal prosecutor, was considered as a potential senior member of the office after DeSantis ousted Warren, Keefe testified.)

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But he could recall none of them providing any information about specific laws Warren was not prosecuting, which was the basis of Warren’s removal.

Cabou showed examples of prosecutors in Miami-Dade, Broward and Leon counties refusing to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses — a policy Keefe said he was intimately familiar with during his time as US attorney for the Northern District of Florida.

But Keefe said he didn’t research those policies during his review of prosecutors not pursuing crimes.

Keefe was also asked if he was aware of Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma in 2020 refusing to enforce an assault weapons registry if it was enacted through a constitutional amendment.

Not until recently, Keefe responded.

“It does concern me,” Keefe said.

‘Perhaps we should send a letter’

Keefe already had his sights set on Warren before the state attorney signed his name to a June 24 letter by a national criminal justice reform group pledging not to prosecute abortion cases.

That letter was the deciding factor to remove Warren, DeSantis officials said this week. But DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman, first suggested another approach, writing to his colleagues: “Perhaps we should send a letter inquiring.”

They decided not to.

Before DeSantis suspended Warren, DeSantis’ attorneys never contacted him or anyone in his office. They did not request the office’s policies, and they did not request any data from his office to show what effect his policies were having on prosecutions.

At one point, someone in DeSantis’ office drew up a memo — to be sent to all state attorneys — requesting information about their “blanket” policies regarding prosecutions, but it was never sent, records in the trial this week showed.

DeSantis’ chief deputy general counsel, Raymond Treadwell, testified Wednesday that contacting Warren or other people in the office would have “tipped him off” that he was going to be suspended.

DeSantis’ attorneys didn’t start requesting information from Warren’s office until after his suspension on Aug. 4 — and only to prepare for a legal trial in the Florida Senate, where executive suspensions are typically challenged, Treadwell said.

That trial in the Senate hasn’t happened because Warren sued in federal court, claiming his right to free speech was violated.

DeSantis’ legal team didn’t anticipate Warren’s legal argument “at all,” Treadwell acknowledged Wednesday.

George Soros a central figure

Keefe wrote the first draft of the governor’s executive order removing Warren, which relied solely on Warren’s letter saying he wouldn’t prosecute abortion-related crimes.

It also included numerous references to Soros, accusing Warren of having “ceded his authority to Mr. Soros’ views on prosecution.” And it stated that funded Soros Warren’s campaign through “pass-through entities, including the Democratic Party.”

Treadwell deleted the language from the draft while noting, “but they may be valuable for the larger political narrative,” records show.

When asked Wednesday why he cut it, Treadwell said the Soros information “has no place as a basis for suspension.”

The final draft of the order did not include any mention of Soros, although DeSantis mentioned Soros during his news conference announcing the suspension and in a later appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show.

At issue in this week’s trial is why DeSantis chose to remove Warren, a twice-elected Democrat who ran — with Soros’ indirect financial help — on a progressive platform.

DeSantis said he removed Warren because he was refusing to uphold the laws through progressive policing policies, and by signing on to two statements from a national criminal justice organization that he was pledging not to prosecute crimes involving abortion and transgender treatment.

But Warren’s lawyers have argued this week that Warren was targeted for his beliefs.

Warren’s team stayed in their box on Wednesday. The case could wrap up on Thursday — after DeSantis’ lawyers call three witnesses. Hinkle could rule as soon as the trial ends.

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