DeSantis suspends Central Florida prosecutor, points to her ‘political agenda’
TALLAHASSEE – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended State Attorney Monique Worrell, a Black Democrat and elected prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties, contending she failed to pursue appropriate charges in serious cases.
DeSantis took a rare step away from his struggling presidential campaign Wednesday to return to Florida’s Capitol to announce Worrell’s suspension, flanked by Attorney General Ashley Moody and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass.
“Prosecutors have a duty to faithfully enforce the law,” DeSantis said. “One’s political agenda cannot trump this solemn duty.”
Andrew Bain, an Orange County judge, was named by DeSantis to serve as state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit in Worrell’s absence. Bain also is Black.
Worrell is the second elected Democratic attorney general removed by DeSantis. Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren was pulled from office last year by DeSantis over what was viewed as his progressive political stance.
Democrats ‘disgusted’ as DeSantis presser memes the suspension
DeSantis has cast himself as a law-and-order governor in his presidential bid and Wednesday’s move could potentially draw him more attention in a race which polls show is slipping away from him as former President Donald Trump asserts dominance over the Republican field.
After her suspension was announced in Tallahassee, hours later Worrell stepped outside her office in Orlando and said, “I am your duly elected state attorney and nothing done by a weak dictator can change that.”
She vowed to fight the suspension in court and run for re-election.
An Orlando state House Democrat, Anna Eskamani, posted on social media that DeSantis “continues to strip away our freedoms and local democracy. I am disgusted.”
DeSantis took no questions following an announcement that at times resembled a political rally. Accompanying DeSantis at the Capitol were Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who took turns praising the governor’s action amid pauses for applause from DeSantis supporters in the audience.
With DeSantis chuckling in the background, Judd held up a placard with a meme-inspired cartoon image of Worrell in a house on fire proclaiming, “This is fine.” Judd touted the selection of Baine.
“None of this would have been possible if we didn’t have a governor, Gov. DeSantis, who said ‘I’m going to do what’s right.’”
‘An unconstitutional attack’: Prosecutor got 67% of the vote before being ousted by DeSantis
DeSantis detailed a series of cases over the past two years where those accused of gun crimes, drug-trafficking and other offenses received reduced sentences or had charges lessened or dismissed in Worrell’s circuit.
In her press conference, Worrell countered that crime has decreased in the Ninth Judicial Circuit.
Worrell has been under fire from Central Florida law enforcement and caught DeSantis’ eye for declining to bring more serious charges in several high-profile shootings and other violent crimes.
Worrell accused DeSantis in April of pursuing “this witch-hunt to establish a basis for the removal of another duly-elected prosecutor” after she learned that a Central Florida Republican Party official had been seeking prosecution data from her office regarding human trafficking cases.
DeSantis last year removed Warren, a twice elected Democrat in Tampa, after he signed pledges saying that he would not push for criminal charges against seekers or providers of abortion or gender transition treatments, along with policies that diminish the prospect of charges for certain low-level crimes.
Warren fought back with a federal lawsuit in September, challenging his removal from office. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in January ruled the suspension violated the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. Hinkle, however, said he lacked the authority to reinstate the prosecutor.
Warren called Wednesday’s action by DeSantis, “another illegal and unconstitutional attack on democracy by a small, scared man who is desperate to save his political career.”
Worrell was elected with 67% of the vote in 2020 in Orange and Osceola counties. Worrell succeeded Aramis Ayala, who had been the first Black state attorney ever elected in Florida.
Ayala clashed with DeSantis’ predecessor, then-Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, over her refusal to seek the death penalty in capital cases, promoting him to reassign more than two dozen cases. Ayala, also a Democrat, last year unsuccessfully challenged Moody, the Republican attorney general, who Wednesday stood by DeSantis and made a case against Worrell.
Moody said Worrell dismissed more than 16,000 charges against defendants over the past year, more than any other Florida state attorney. She said the dismissals stand out, being four times the number of dismissals in Palm Beach County, where another Democrat, Dave Aronberg, serves.
“Officers may arrest you, they risk their lives arresting you. But if you’re in the 9th Circuit, nearly half the time, the state attorney will not follow through,” Moody said. “That is incredibly dangerous to people in the 9th Circuit.”
On Worrell’s office website, the state attorney outlines the goals of the independently elected office.
“While engaging in the day-to-day prosecutorial function, we likewise seek to reform and improve the criminal justice system by measuring success in the courtroom and the community,” the site says.
DeSantis move comes as he struggles to overtake Trump
DeSantis appears to have been building a case against Worrell for a while. At the end of February, DeSantis’ general counsel demanded that Worrell turn over emails, reports and documents related to a 19-year-old man accused of killing three people in Orlando, including a television reporter.
The governor already had criticized her earlier prosecutions of the suspect, Keith Moses, who had a record of arrests as a juvenile and was on probation when he allegedly went on a shooting spree.
DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman, wrote Worrell questioning how Moses was allowed to “remain on the streets after multiple arrests, including one your office has refused to prosecute.”
Worrell in March said that Moses was “on the streets” because he did not commit an offense that would have justified life in prison.
“This is about the governor wanting to control the politics across this state,” she said. “And quite frankly, it’s dangerous because this is a democracy, not a dictatorship.”
For DeSantis, Worrell’s suspension comes a day after his latest overhaul of his problem-plagued presidential campaign. DeSantis on Tuesday replaced his campaign manager, Generra Peck, with his governor’s office chief-of-staff, James Uthmeier, as he continues to trail far behind Trump, the Republican frontrunner.
DeSantis has dismissed about 40% of his campaign staff and burned through much of his formidable fund-raising. But the governor’s poll numbers have slid since earlier this year as Trump expands his hold on the GOP, despite three criminal indictments.
DeSantis portrayed his actions Wednesday as an attempt to bring prosecutions in Democratic-leaning Orange and Osceola counties into compliance with state law.
“Prosecutors do have a certain amount of discretion about which cases to bring and which not, but with what this state attorney has done is abuse that discretion and it effectively nullifies certain laws in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport