TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has once again suspended an elected local prosecutor, a move that comes as his presidential campaign struggles amid a continued reset.
DeSantis on Tuesday suspended Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell, a Democrat who is the only Black woman serving as a local prosecutor in Florida.
It’s the second time he has used his authority as governor to take such action. DeSantis suspended Tampa-area prosecutor Andrew Warren in August 2022 for signaling he would not bring charges under Florida's new 15-week abortion ban. A federal judge called that decision unconstitutional but said he could not overturn the suspension. A challenge filed by Warren was later thrown out by the DeSantis-friendly Florida Supreme Court.
Both Warren's and Worrell’s 2020 campaigns received help from a committee that got money from Democratic megadonor George Soros, a frequent target of Republican attacks. In fundraising emails and in speeches, DeSantis has boasted that he is the “only elected official in America to remove a ‘progressive’ Soros-funded district attorney,” a reference to Warren's suspension.
DeSantis made the announcement during a hastily called press conference in Tallahassee. It included top law enforcement officials and a room packed with his administration staffers, who were apparently given a heads-up the day before to show up at the 8:15 a.m. press conference. DeSantis alerted the media to the event less than 30 minutes before it began.
The press conference was held one day after DeSantis' presidential campaign elevated his gubernatorial chief of staff, James Uthmeier, to campaign manager. Uthmeier was chief of staff when DeSantis suspended Warren in 2022.
Worrell’s held a press conference in Orlando hours after the DeSantis announcement, calling him a "weak dictator."
"I am your duly elected state attorney, and nothing done by a weak dictator can change that," she said.
In an interview with NBC News, Worrell said that the country was "in danger of losing our democracy."
"This man is running for president and the country should be afraid," she said. "The country should be afraid of an individual who removes duly elected officials because they are not politically aligned with him. The country should be afraid of a man who dares to teach our children that slavery was somehow a benefit to the African Americans in this country. ... Our country should be afraid of the impact that this could have across this country if he were to be elected."
Worrell’s suspension comes after months of political fights with Republicans, including with DeSantis directly, over her handling of a string of Orlando-areas shootings — most notably a March shooting spree in the Orlando area that left three dead, including a 9-year-old and a local television journalist. The alleged gunman had eight felonies and 11 misdemeanors, but those all came while he was a juvenile. His only crime as a legal adult in 2021 was when he was in possession of drug paraphernalia and cannabis.
Worrell, whose office announced it is seeking the death penalty in the case, said Republicans were playing politics with the issue, and noted her office closed almost 3,000 cases this year. But conservatives blasted her for allowing someone with such an extensive criminal record, even though most of it came while he was a juvenile, to remain on the streets.
“Prosecutors have a duty to faithfully enforce the law. One’s political agenda cannot trump this solemn duty, refusing to faithfully enforce the laws of Florida puts our communities in danger and victimizes innocent Floridians,” DeSantis said during the Tallahassee press conference flanked by law enforcement officials, including Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.
The formal reasons DeSantis issued the executive order suspending Worrell were for showing a pattern of avoiding minimum mandatory sentences for gun crimes and drug charges, and allowing juvenile offenders to avoid serious charges and incarceration. DeSantis can only suspend; the Florida Senate would have to take action to remove her from office.
Moody also pointed to the fact that from January 2021 to June 2022, Worrell dismissed charges against more than 16,000 people, the most of any state attorney in the state. She said she was highlighting those numbers to get in front of criticism from Worrell and her allies that the suspension is “political.”
Democrats, however, still quickly blasted the decision as political and one that will disrupt local state attorney offices in judicial circuits that oversee two of the largest metro areas in the state — Orlando and Tampa. In both cases, the people of those communities elected the suspended prosecutor.
“This is absolutely disgusting,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat. “State Attorney Monique Worrell is a duly elected official and the only Black woman serving as State Attorney in Florida right now … this politically motivated action by the governor in a predominantly democratic part of the state should alarm everyone.”
Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried called the suspension a "political hit job."
State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat and himself a former prosecutor, said he is concerned about “how disruptive these actions are to line prosecutors who have victims waiting on arraignments, motions, trials, bond hearings and sentencing.”
In her interview with NBC News, Worrell said she would be willing to take the fight to court.
“We will absolutely explore all of our legal options and begin to pursue them immediately,” she said.
But her chances of success may be slim, based on the outcome of Warren's case.
The Warren suspension similarly sparked huge political backlash, and court documents that came with follow-up legal challenges outlined that DeSantis’ office was specifically targeting local prosecutors they viewed as progressive-leaning. In early 2022, he ordered staff led by former Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe to ferret out progressive prosecutors, a process that for Keefe included asking the Florida Sheriffs Association, which is allied with Republicans and DeSantis, if they knew of any progressive prosecutors.
Months later, Warren was suspended, sparking a monthslong legal fight. During the legal challenges, Keefe acknowledged in depositions that he had been concerned that Warren “had been co-opted” by Soros. Soros is a political boogeyman for Republicans, who have long targeted him. But the frequent attention on him has been scrutinized as antisemitic by groups like the Anti-Defamation League, because Soros is Jewish. During his deposition, Keefe said he was not aware that Soros is Jewish.
“Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suspended elected State Attorney Andrew H. Warren, ostensibly on the ground that Mr. Warren had blanket policies not to prosecute certain kinds of cases,” read the order from U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle. “The allegation was false.”
“Any reasonable investigation would have confirmed this,” wrote Hinkle, who said he had no authority to overturn the suspension despite its unconstitutional nature.
In June, the Florida Supreme Court tossed a legal challenge by Warren, citing an “unreasonable delay” in bringing the challenge.