On Tuesday night, voters in Duval and Orange counties ousted their respective incumbent State Attorney’s. In Hillsborough County this fall, Andrew Warren hopes to continue that trend.
Warren is a former federal prosecutor who quit his job late last year to challenge 16-year incumbent Mark Ober. In what was perhaps the single most important hour of his campaign to date, Warren blasted his Republican rival on Friday at a Tampa Tiger Bay debate for being too focused on conviction rates than in making the community safer, and in running an outdated State Attorney’s office. “We’re like the rotary phone of criminal justice,” he quipped during his opening statement at the Ferguson Law Center in Tampa. “We’re in need of an upgrading.”
Specifically, Warren charged that under Ober, juveniles are being charged as adults in Hillsborough County more than “just about anywhere in the entire country,” and cited a recent Harvard University study that said that Hillsborough was one of the worst counties in the entire country in handling death penalty cases (the case also cites Pinellas, Duval and Miami-Dade, alleging that all four shared a “history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion.”).
Ober is emphasizing his local roots (he attended high school in Brandon, while Warren hails from Gainesville and worked for years in Washington D.C.), and his tough law and order stance that has provoked little dissent during his 16 years in office. But there’s been a movement in recent years nationally on reforming criminal justice, and Warren is attempting to paint Ober’s policies as being out of date.
As he has done on the campaign trail, Warren questioned Ober’s ethics, specifically the contributions he’s received from employees inside the Hillsborough State Attorney’s office, and from defense attorneys in the community. Warren has said he wouldn’t take contributions from either group. “How do we know who’s being promoted based on merit, vs. based on political support?” he asked, while later added, “How do we know when defense lawyers have funded my opponent’s campaign, who’s getting justice and who’s getting favors?”
During the Q&A, Elizabeth Belcher, a former chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, alleged that Ober had a conflict of interest in reviewing the Go Hillsborough investigation that ultimately led to no criminal charges, but did severely weaken the case for a transportation tax in Hillsborough that the county commission ultimately opted not to put on the 2016 ballot.
Ober responded that the case was a major dud, “a colossal waste of resources,” adding that “no crime was committed. It wasn’t close.”
Warren said that there was the perception of a conflict, which was why the case should have been referred out to another agency.
But perhaps the biggest moment exchange of the hour was when Warren accused Ober’s office of dropping the ball regarding the case of a 15-year-old girl who “was made a sex slave by an older man who lived in Washington D.C.” He was referring to a story that was initially brought to the public by WTSP-10 News reporter Mike Deeson in February.
The report featured an interview with teen’s mother, whose face was blurred on tape. She said that she couldn’t believe that the State Attorney’s office wasn’t going to file charges against the 24-year-old male. Deeson reported that Chief Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore said it was the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office that was reluctant to file charges against the 24-year man. But Deeson then produced a 37-page “case clearance form” written by an assistant state attorney that said that after reviewing the facts, Ober’s office wouldn’t file charges, even after the fact that a detective saw pictures and video evidence of the teen nude. Ultimately, Ober’s office did file charges, and the man was apprehended.
Warren called it justice delayed, and questioned if it would have ever been prosecuted if it weren’t for the news media.
Ober replied to Warren that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
“We were looking at the case at the time that Mike Deeson called us,” he insisted. “Mike Deeson has apologized about the report that he put on, that indicated that he brought it to our attention. I have a picture of what I call a sex slave, and by no means, do not read between the lines. This young girl …this man has committed a crime, so don’t read between the lines, here. She was with him voluntarily. She flew to see him.”
Ober went on to say that the mother has met on multiple occasions with Rita Peters, the head of the Sex Offenders Division at the state attorney’s office, and the man is being prosecuted. “Consent is not an issue,” Ober continued. “Don’t misunderstand me. He committed a crime. I know the facts of the case.”
When contacted this afternoon, Deeson said he wasn’t sure if had apologized to Ober, but did indicate in a followup report on 10 News that the state attorney’s office was already looking into the case when WTSP aired their initial report. But Deeson also maintained that there was a “huge discrepancy” between what the sheriffs office was saying and the state attorneys office, and that at least initially, the state attorney’s office had signed a form saying that they were not going to prosecute the case.
Meanwhile, although Warren was impressive in articulating his goals for the job and where he believes Ober has failed, he didn’t come out of the debate unscathed.
Hillsborough Clerk of the Courts spokesman Tom Scherberger (a former longtime reporter with the Tampa Bay Times) challenged Warren on his integrity, citing a statement on a campaign flier that quotes the Tampa Bay Times as calling him, “an accomplished prosecutor who…has been working for the public for years.”
The problem with that, Scherberger said, was that the quote was generated from Warren’s own press release that Times reporter Anna Phillips used in the story. Warren was caught flatfooted, and immediately pivoted to questioning the integrity of Ober’s office by referring to how many members of his staff accompany him to lunches and other public events, “when they should be in the office doing the work that the taxpayers are paying them to do on behalf of the community.”
Warren was also pressed by legal blogger Haydee Oropesa and activist Michelle Williams about the last case he prosecuted while serving in the Justice Dept. that did not go well for the feds.
Warren was serving as the lead prosecutor in a case involving three phone company owners accused of ripping off more than $32 million for their involvement with Lifeline, the program that helps low income people afford telephone service. Shortly after he announced his candidacy in January, however, the heart and soul of that case died when the federal judge dismissed 12 counts of a 13-count indictment against the defendants, doing so at the request of another Justice Department lawyer. The case ended shortly afterwards, when the federal judge dismissed the remaining count of fraud against a single defendant.
When Oropesa asked him about the case, he dismissed her question, saying, “there was so many factual inaccuracies in what you said it would take me an hour to address.” He did admit that it was a difficult case to prosecute, and ultimately praised his successors for dropping it. “They weren’t worried about just chasing a conviction or winning the case, they weren’t worried about bad press, they did the right thing. And that’s what it means to seek justice.”
Oropesa wasn’t satisfied with his response, emailing SPB afterwards that, “Warren again in typical politician style fails to clearly articulate what inaccuracies I made in posing my question. It is very simple, Warren, after having the federal case for a year and a half at least, prosecuted 4 men under the theory that they billed fraudulently for customers that they could not support through hard copy records. The prosecutors who later inherited Warren’s case learned through a main witness that audio files could also serve as proof. It appears Warren did not know the law during the time in question or go through the 1.5 million audio files his former office had amassed before he abandoned the case to run for State Attorney. Thus, the reason the DOJ moved to dismiss the charges.”
Ober has raised more than $277,300 in the race. Warren has raised $220,338.
The election for Hillsborough State Attorney takes place on November 8.