Inside Ron DeSantis’ Politicized Removal of an Elected Prosecutor

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event in Doral, Fla., on March 1, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event in Doral, Fla., on March 1, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

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,” the governor told reporters and hand-picked supporters at a news conference.

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

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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, writing in blue pen on a draft of an executive order, the governor had personally removed 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 muscular and decisive 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.

But a close examination of the episode, including interviews, emails, text messages and thousands of pages of government records, trial testimony, depositions and other court records, reveals a sharply different picture: a governor’s office that seemed driven by a preconceived political narrative, bent on a predetermined outcome, content with a flimsy investigation and focused on maximizing media attention for DeSantis.

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 — thwarting the goal of making an example of him. 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.

If the investigation into Warren was cursory at best, the preparation to remove him while simultaneously publicizing that ouster involved greater planning. And those plans were executed with military precision. The governor’s aides gave special attention to news outlets they referred to as “friendly.” Immediately after the news conference, DeSantis aides exerted influence over communications at the state attorney’s office, an independent county agency, working to ensure that the takeover did not result in negative coverage.

And that night, the governor headlined Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to promote his move. Carlson opened with a 12-minute speech about prosecutors who disregard the law, then turned to an exclusive interview with the governor.

“Ron DeSantis is the man who put an end to it today in the state of Florida,” Carlson said.

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 from the bench, 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, in an interview, 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.

In response to written questions, a spokesperson for the governor referred to public statements and the trial record, adding, “Mr. Warren remains suspended from the office he failed to serve.”

In recent weeks, DeSantis has indicated that he intends to target other prosecutors with whom he disagrees, lashing out at another Democratic state attorney.

Earlier this month, he told donors at a private gathering in Palm Beach, Florida, that because he’d won only 50% of the vote in his 2018 election, people had told him to tread lightly.

“But I won 100% of the executive power,” he said, “and I intended to use it to advance an agenda that I campaigned on.”

‘All Roads Led to Mr. Warren’

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

The topic was not on the meeting’s agenda, but it hardly came out of the blue.

Right-wing pundits and podcasters had for years railed against local prosecutors elected on platforms promising alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes or avoiding the death penalty. The critics painted those prosecutors as agents of George Soros, a billionaire Democratic donor, and as giving rise to a scourge of crime. One such prosecutor at the time, Chesa Boudin, was facing a recall election in San Francisco.

A top DeSantis aide, Larry Keefe, set out to answer the governor’s question. A former U.S. attorney, Keefe’s title is public safety czar. But he has served in a broad role for the governor, executing high-profile projects including helping to coordinate the flight of scores of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts in September.

Keefe 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.”

A former federal prosecutor, 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.

By contrast, his predecessor, Rick Scott, publicly clashed with a prosecutor who refused to seek capital punishment and took death penalty cases away from her, but he did not force her from office.

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.”

Whether the pledge would have any practical impact in Hillsborough County was unclear. Criminal cases of any kind involving abortion had been exceptionally rare in Florida. A new law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy was being appealed.

Warren told a TV reporter that the statement should not be read as a blanket policy: He would individually evaluate any cases that emerged. The governor’s aides saw the TV report and disregarded it, according to court records.

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.

Records obtained through litigation show that Keefe and the lawyers began drafting the executive order suspending Warren.

The tone of an early draft, written by Keefe in July, was highly partisan. The document named Soros six times, pointing to reports that Warren had received indirect support for his campaign from the billionaire Jewish philanthropist, a frequent target of conservatives and of antisemitic tropes.

(In a deposition, Keefe said he had not known that Soros was Jewish, but said he was “concerned” that “one of Florida’s state attorneys had been co-opted” by the philanthropist.)

In another draft, Treadwell highlighted a passage referring to Soros and wrote, “I would prefer to remove these allegations, but they may be valuable for the larger political narrative.”

The signed executive order included no references to Soros.

Editing Out the Data

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.

Still, the governor seemed reluctant to hang Warren’s removal narrowly on the abortion pledge.

In handwritten instructions on a draft of the executive order, he told his lawyers to list “non-abortion infractions first,” including language accusing the prosecutor of “acting as if he is a law unto himself.”

DeSantis also crossed out three paragraphs packed with statistics about prosecution rates in Hillsborough County. Aides had dug up the data in hopes of showing a declining rate of prosecution during Warren’s tenure, but the numbers weren’t clear.

“You can kind of tell we didn’t have any definitive proof of a correlation,” Treadwell later testified.

In December, during a three-day 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.”

“A cynic would say, ‘I just needed one pelt — just needed to nail one pelt to the wall,’” the judge added.

Mixed Signals in the Messaging

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!”

Christina Pushaw, the governor’s spokesperson at the time, teased the coming news on Twitter: “Major announcement tomorrow morning” from DeSantis, she wrote. “Prepare for liberal media meltdown of the year.” Her tweet alone generated headlines by Fox News and other conservative news outlets.

But DeSantis wanted to avoid the appearance that his ouster of Warren was an overtly partisan act.

He told Pushaw he was displeased with her tweet, she later testified, saying he wanted the public message to be about protecting Floridians from a dangerous prosecutor, adding that his decision “had nothing to do with the media.”

Pushaw, a combative force on social media, called this the only time the governor had ever “reprimanded” her over her tweets.

And Uthmeier, the governor’s chief of staff, warned another aide that DeSantis wanted them to tone down the “sensationalism.”

“Every comment impacts what will be contentious litigation,” Uthmeier wrote in a text message disclosed in litigation.

The heated language was coming from the legal department, too. DeSantis’ general counsel, Newman, added language to the governor’s speech calling Warren “a woke ideologue masquerading as a prosecutor.”

Under oath, Newman later said he did not believe the statement to be true. He wrote it, he said, “to channel what I think the press shop wants.”

That press shop was in high gear as the governor’s office removed Warren. It discussed handing out copies of the executive order to friendly news outlets. Other aides, meanwhile, contacted Republican Party groups to find DeSantis supporters to fill the room.

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. Keefe texted the governor’s staff: “Warren is out of the building.” And the news conference began.

‘We’ll Put the Nail in the Coffin’

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.)

Two aides to the governor were dispatched to the state attorney’s office in Hillsborough to “help make sure there’s no funny business over there,” Savannah Kelly Jefferson, director of external affairs, wrote in a text message to her staff.

Keefe, who had stuck around at the state attorney’s office, told Melanie Snow-Waxler, the office’s chief communications officer, to cancel Warren’s news conference on the cold cases, she said in an interview. The office said its chief of staff had made the decision.

He listened in on speakerphone as she called one homicide victim’s aunt to tell her not to come.

“I was confused. I didn’t know what was going on,” Snow-Waxler, who was fired soon after for reasons that are in dispute, said in the interview. “This is not someone who has been your boss, but it’s not like I was given an option. It was an order.”

A former DeSantis spokesperson, Fred Piccolo, was brought in as a communications consultant for the state attorney’s office. In an interview, Piccolo said his job included keeping the prosecutor’s office on the same page with the governor’s office in publicly discussing Warren’s suspension. In a text message to colleagues, Fenske said she would lean on Piccolo to push back on Warren’s contention that his suspension was invalid: “We’ll put the nail in the coffin.”

Six days later, 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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