By Ryan Dailey and Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday suspended Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell, accusing the prosecutor of “neglecting her duty” and being lax on criminal enforcement.
DeSantis’ suspension of Worrell, elected in 2020 as state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit in Orange and Osceola counties, marks the second time in a year the Republican governor has acted to strip an elected Democratic prosecutor from office.
Speaking to reporters shortly after DeSantis announced her suspension Wednesday, Worrell decried what she called the “loss of democracy” through DeSantis’ action.
“I am your duly elected state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, and nothing done by a weak dictator can change that,” Worrell said.
Worrell’s suspension came after she drew criticism from police union leaders who said her office should have done more to keep behind bars a man accused of shooting two Orlando police officers on Friday.
“We had a duty to act to protect the public from this dereliction of duty,” DeSantis said during a press conference Wednesday morning announcing the suspension.
Worrell said that she has spoken with her legal team and plans to challenge her suspension. She defended her record as state attorney, and said that two high-ranking employees in her office also were fired as part of the governor’s actions.
“I was elected by the people of the 9th Judicial Circuit to lead this circuit. And yes, to do things unconventionally, to do things differently. But I didn’t hide. … I did exactly what I said I would do, and that is what you want from an elected official,” Worrell said.
The Florida Constitution gives the governor the authority to suspend elected officials. The ultimate decision about removal from office rests with the Florida Senate.
In an executive order issued Wednesday, DeSantis maintained that Worrell’s policies prevent or discourage assistant state attorneys from seeking mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes and drug trafficking offenses.
Worrell’s practices and policies constitute “abuse of prosecutorial discretion” and reflect “a systemic failure to enforce incarcerative penalties called for by Florida law,” the order said.
DeSantis’ order pointed to Florida Department of Corrections’ data, which he said showed that prison admission rates for Worrell’s region between Jan. 1, 2022 through March 31, 2023, “are below — often far below — the statewide average across all categories of criminal offenses, except three.”
DeSantis named Andrew Bain, who recently served as an Orange County judge, as acting state attorney. DeSantis in 2020 tapped Bain — a member of the conservative Federalist Society legal group — to serve on the county court.
“I will make this office accountable to the community we serve, and to ensure criminals who poison society, cause mayhem and murder are held accountable under the law,” Bain, who joined DeSantis at Wednesday’s press conference in the Capitol, told reporters.
Florida Democrats quickly blasted DeSantis’ action and accused the governor of using the suspension to try to pump up his presidential campaign.
“The authoritarian tactic of removing duly-elected officials without legal cause is a direct affront to voters and Gov. DeSantis’ removal of the Orlando state attorney is a brazen and petulant act of a flailing presidential candidate whose disregard for democracy and the rule of law is deeply troubling,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from South Florida, said in a statement.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, also slammed what she called a “politically motivated action” by DeSantis.
“This is absolutely disgusting — State Attorney Monique Worrell is a duly elected official and the only Black woman serving as state attorney in Florida right now. Her removal is a complete slap in the face to Orange and Osceola County residents and another example of Governor DeSantis eroding our local control and democracy,” Eskamani said in a statement.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried also attacked DeSantis’ action, calling the suspension “a political hit job” that “threatens our democracy and undermines the will of the people.”
DeSantis’ move Wednesday came just over a year after DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.
Warren filed a federal lawsuit in September challenging his removal from office, and U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in January ruled that the suspension violated the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. Hinkle, however, said he lacked the authority to reinstate the prosecutor. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in Warren’s appeal but has not issued a ruling.
Warren in February also asked the Florida Supreme Court to reinstate him, arguing that the governor “exceeded his powers” in the suspension. The court in June rejected Warren’s attempt to get his job back, ruling that the twice-elected Democrat waited too long to bring the case.
Warren on Wednesday also rebuked DeSantis for suspending Worrell.
“Another illegal and unconstitutional attack on democracy by a small, scared man who is desperate to save his political career,” Warren said in a statement.
But Republicans and law enforcement officials praised the governor’s actions.
Worrell’s suspension “is absolutely imperative for the protection of our citizens,” said Attorney General Ashley Moody, who also flanked DeSantis at Wednesday’s event.
“If she were allowed to continue in this office, her failure would continue to cause needless pain, suffering, and death,” Moody added.
Moody said Worrell has dismissed charges or failed to file cases against defendants at a higher rate than any other prosecutor.
Central Florida law enforcement officials, including Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, also backed the suspension.
DeSantis on Wednesday accused Worrell’s office of mishandling the arrest and detention of Daton Viel, who allegedly shot two police officers on Friday before being killed Saturday morning by an Orlando SWAT team. Viel was arrested in March and charged with sexual battery on a minor, but was released after posting a $125,000 bail bond in April.
The Fraternal Order of Police of Orlando called Worrell “soft on crime” in a social media post Saturday.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Worrell said the police union assisted the governor’s office in her removal because, when she ran for office in 2020, she pledged to hold law-enforcement officers accountable for their actions.
“On that I delivered and that is the reason that law enforcement galvanized behind the governor’s undemocratic attack,” Worrell said.
Worrell, standing outside the Orlando County Courthouse, said she will continue running for reelection in 2024.
“I will not be quiet. I will not sit down. This office is just a building. I have been a public servant for my entire career. And I will continue to serve our community. I will continue to stand for democracy. I will continue to protect the rights of the disenfranchised,” she said.