Andrew Warren, the former federal prosecutor running for Hillsborough County State Attorney, was rebuked by a federal judge last summer, who said a request for time off was made in violation of a local rule of the court. The response came after Warren asked the judge to recess the court for two days so that he could attend a “Leadership Tampa” event sponsored by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Warren, a Democrat, served in the Justice Department for eight years before stepping down last December to challenge GOP incumbent Mark Ober. He says the judge’s response is not a big deal.
Last year, 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.
Warren wrote to Judge Steven D. Merryday on June 29, 2015, to inform him he had just been accepted to participate in “Leadership Tampa,” which he described to the judge as a “prestigious and highly-selective program” which he was honored to been chosen to. He went on to explain that the program would run from September of 2015 through May 2016 with day long events approximately every two to three weeks, and that he could not miss more than two events without having to leave the program.
While confessing that “my commitment to the DOJ takes priority over my participation in this program,’ he asked for Merryday to weigh in to decide whether he should make the commitment.
Merryday was not pleased, responding that, ”A moment’s thought about the imperatives of managing a federal court docket that includes about four hundred cases and a multiple of that number of lawyers and litigants should enable the applicant in this instance to reliably predict the disposition of his application and to assess the propriety of advancing the application in the first instance.”
The judge went on to write that “the merits of the requested relief aside, the letter, a violation of the Local Rules, is STRIKEN.”
The local rule of the U.S. Middle District of Florida that Merryday cited – 3.o1 (f) – says that such a request should be made with Clerk of the Court.
When asked to comment, Warren said he was informing the judge as a courtesy. “I did what lawyers typically do, which is give chambers a heads up.” The improper thing, he says, would have been not to have contacted him.
SPB spoke with two local attorneys to weigh in on how serious or not Merryday’s letter was.
Tampa-based attorney Donald Harrison says it’s not really that big of a deal, but says Warren didn’t follow the rules. He says he’s seen such judges behave in a similar fashion when an attorney makes a similar request.
“That’s really where the real angst was,” he says, mocking what a judge might say to such a request. “‘You’re kidding right? We’re in the middle of a trial, and you want to take some time off to do some social function?”
Harrison says Warren should have filed a Motion to Continue because of his prior commitment, and let the judge weigh its importance.
“Every courtroom is controlled differently by each particular judge and each judge has their particular nuances,” adds Palm Harbor attorney Robert Eckard. He says that lawyers sometimes will file a Notice of Unavailability, which he has himself has filed in hundreds of cases. Acknowledging that “it’s really easy to arm chair quarterback” what he would do in such a situation, Eckard said that “the proper procedure would have been to file motion of protection for certain dates, so that no hearings or deposition or any other matter could be set at that time frame.”
Leadership Tampa is a program sponsored by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, where according to its website, members participate in educational sessions, tours and “candid conversations with community leaders.” Warren was among 50 people in the Tampa Bay area part of the most program, which included Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward and concluded in May.
Topics including law enforcement, education, social services, the environment, economic development and the arts – to name a few – challenge members to see their community as they never have before.
Warren said even asking the question was absurd.
“There are real issues in our criminal justice system, starting with a need to protect the community from gun violence that continues to claim the lives of young men in this community, violent crimes, financial crimes, we have real problems that we’re dealing with, and it’s ridiculous to be discussing a scheduling request from a case a year ago,” he said last week, citing that the issue was originally brought up by local legal blogger Haydee Oropesa, who has written critically about his candidacy on her blog and has acknowledged that she is supporting Ober in the state attorney’s race.
“This is an Ober supporter whose posted things online that frankly aren’t true,” Warren said. “I’m not going to respond every time an Ober supporter says something out there that’s not true.”
Warren is attempting to defeat a 16-year incumbent in Ober, and has been competitive in fundraising to date. In the most recent report issued on Friday, Ober raised more than $28,000 for the first 24 days in June, and has collected $255,000 to date. Warren raised more than $10,000 in the time period, and has raised more than $177,000 so far.