Warren v. DeSantis: Governor’s aide, Warren’s aide, were key witnesses

Both aides provided central testimony during trial

By: - December 2, 2022 4:55 pm

Courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Credit: Michael Moline

Gov. Ron DeSantis might never have suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren if not for pressure from Larry Keefe, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida who joined the DeSantis administration after leaving his federal job when Joe Biden entered the White House.

Evidence produced in Warren’s First Amendment lawsuit against the governor, alleging DeSantis acted against the state attorney because he is a Democrat and advocate of social justice law enforcement — that means trying to address crime without the “law and order” approach DeSantis favors and working with the Black and Brown communities instead of targeting them.

Suspended Hillsborough County prosecutor Andrew Warren addresses reporters on Nov. 29, 2022, Day One of his federal lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Michael Moline

It’s true that DeSantis kicked off the episode when, during a December meeting of his legal staff, he wondered aloud whether Florida suffered under any “woke” prosecutors — San Francisco voters that summer had recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin and George Gascón survived a similar drive in Los Angeles.

That started a chain of events that led to a three-day trial before U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle this week in Tallahassee. Before it ended, an array of DeSantis’ legal staff and other aides would be called to the stand, as well as Warren himself and some of his top aides. Christine Pushaw, a former DeSantis press secretary who now works for his political operation, appeared outside the courtroom but didn’t end up testifying.

Leading the governor’s defense in Warren v. DeSantis were George Levesque and Jeff Aaron of the GrayRobinson law firm, with participation by state Solicitor General Henry Whitaker (who clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas).

Warren’s team included J. Cabou and David O’Neal of Debevoise & Plimpton.

Hinkle said following closing arguments on Thursday that it would be a couple of weeks before he issues a ruling, adding: “I don’t know who’s going to win.”

Here are some highlights from the trial:

Missionary zeal

By that time of that fateful meeting, Keefe was DeSantis’ public safety adviser. He started calling his contacts in the law enforcement community (and prominent Republicans he knew, but never Warren directly or any of his staff, as U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle noted from the bench).

They complained that the prosecutor’s policies were making it difficult to enforce quality-of-life crimes, including trespassing by homeless people and prostitution.

One policy established a rebuttable presumption of nonprosecution in such misdemeanors unless they posed serious risk to public safety. Another established the same presumption against resisting arrest without violence following a bike or pedestrian stop.

Lawrence Keefe, former U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Florida and current adviser to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Wikipedia.

Keefe testified to his outrage at what Warren was doing on a number of scores, but what settled the matter for him was word that Warren had signed policy statements drafted by an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution decrying the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. A similar statement protested the mounting campaign against transgender people.

The abortion document, released in July, reads, in part: “[P]rosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions. As such, we decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions and commit to exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”

That persuaded an initially reluctant Ryan Newman, the former Samuel Alito Supreme Court clerk serving as DeSantis’ general counsel, and, ultimately, the governor, too, Newman testified, overcoming “initial reluctance on his [DeSantis’] part” to punish Warren before he’d actually declined to press a case.

Newman argued Warren’s stance would encourage people to have illegal abortions under Florida’s 15-week ban. “Yeah, that actually makes sense,” the governor finally concluded, according to Newman’s testimony.

Even the rebuttable presumption policies were cause for concern, according to Newman. “It amends the law,” he said. “It’s adding an element to the law that the Legislature never intended.”

Aide turned defense witness

Gary Weisman, Warren’s chief of staff, testified as a witness for the defense. He described a close working relationship with his boss, even though he was a Republican and Warren a Democrat. His duties were to offer advice, run the office, monitor the budget, and lobby in Tallahassee. He also handled a small caseload of post-conviction proceedings.

Weisman testified that he’d warned Warren against signing the abortion pledge. “My advice was not to sign on to this document” because it would be “bad for Mr. Warren,” he said.

Warren never intended the document “to be a policy statement,” he himself said from the witness stand on the trial’s first day. “This letter has zero impact on any case in our office,” he testified.

Two of Warren’s top deputies, Jeria Wilds, who ran problem-solving courts, and Kimberly Hindman, in charge of the felony division, testified that neither letter had any effect on the office’s operations. Wilds said she became aware of them only when Warren was suspended. Hindman acknowledged that Weisman brought up the abortion pledge during an executive committee meeting but insisted — again — that it didn’t drive policy.

Still, to Weisman, the implications of Warren’s signature on certainly the abortion pledge was clear. “The document reflected that that was a law the agency wasn’t going to prosecute,” Weisman testified.

Law enforcement backlash

Warren had testified that he had consulted with local law enforcement about his nonprosecution presumption. The bike and pedestrian policies were responses to complaints by the Black community of being unfairly targeted by police, as documented by Florida International University research, he explained.

Weisman, though, said cops complained to him that the policies made it hard for them to combat public nuisances.

“They didn’t know what to tell the community about how to fix that,” Weisman said.

But when Hinkle asked him to name the people he talked to, Weisman said he couldn’t remember.

The staff chief was close enough to Warren that the latter called him immediately upon learning of his suspension, Weisman testified, and he was in Warren’s office with Keefe showed up with a couple of deputies to show Warren the door.

Warren left with his office laptop and cellphone, Weisman continued, returning the laptop fairly quickly but holding onto the cellphone for about a month, copying its contents, he said.

Weisman, who remains in his job under Susan Lopez, Warren’s appointed replacement, acknowledged joining Levesque and Aaron at the Brass Tap, a restaurant and bar in Tallahassee, on Sept. 18, just before the preliminary hearing in the lawsuit, and providing them with documents.

Warren’s attorneys noted that Weisman and Lopez shared “a big hug” when she took over. A report by the investigator sent to retrieve the office equipment indicated Warren promised reprisals against unnamed staff if he won reinstatement. “Mr. Warren added that if he gets back into office, a lot of people are getting fired,” the report said.

Over eager

An eager unpaid intern in DeSantis’ general counsel’s office found himself on the witness stand in the Warren case for his trouble.

Andrew Madry described himself as a student at Stetson University College of Law who worked in the office for two months over the summer — while the Warren matter was under review.

Eager to display initiative, he inserted himself, explaining during his testimony: “I thought it would be interesting to involve myself in this matter.”

Madry attended meetings and took notes that attracted defense lawyers’ attention.

One said: “13 Cir SAO [state attorney office] — Gov wants to suspend.” Another said: “State attorney → WAR” (all-caps in the original).

That second note he explained as an expression he’d retained from service as a “member of the armed forces” meaning “shorthand we use to distinguish planning to take action” versus taking action.

Madry drafted a chart laying out the benefits and drawbacks from suspending Warren. Among the former: “A leftist prosecutor is removed from a position of power.” Among the latter: “Political battle likely to raise Warren’s profile” and “Democrats will use media to slander governor.”

Madry insisted that only his supervisor saw the chart and that no one beside himself saw the notes until they emerged during pretrial discovery.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.