COURTS

State Attorney Dave Aronberg is a TV news pundit. Is he serving Palm Beach County or himself?

It's common for Dave Aronberg to talk about national news on MSNBC and CNN while leading an office with hundreds of employees and thousands of cases.

Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg appears frequently as a commentator on cable television shows, talking about a variety of issues. This spring, he discussed issues with (clockwise from top left) Kate Bolduan of CNN, Katie Phang of MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of MSNBC and Brian Entin on NewsNation.

If you want to see Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, turn on your TV.

At least once, and sometimes two or three times a week, the 50-year-old three-term prosecutor and career politician is on nationally televised news shows, talking about all manner of headline-grabbing cases.

From his office or home in downtown West Palm Beach and sometimes in network studios, Aronberg regularly shares his opinions with news celebrities, such as Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, Wolf Blitzer on CNN and Marni Hughes on NewsNation.

The breadth of his commentary is impressive.

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In the past three weeks, he’s mused about whether police in Uvalde, Texas, responded properly to the deadly school shooting. He’s warned that women could lose access to birth control if Roe v. Wade is overturned. He’s delved into a federal lawsuit that accuses a Michigan school district of gross negligence in a November shooting that left four dead and seven injured.

From the momentous to the mundane, if a case has attracted public attention, Aronberg has become a go-to for legal analysis.

Could actor Will Smith be prosecuted for attacking comedian Chris Rock during the Academy Awards ceremony? What’s taking the U.S. Justice Department so long to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots? And what about that libel suit actor Johnny Depp filed against his former wife, actress Amber Heard?

State Attorney Dave Aronberg works Christmas Day at the first appearance hearings at the Palm Beach County Jail in 2019.  While he speaks often on TV about the issues attorneys are facing during trials of national interest, his own courtroom experience is limited.

Privately, some attorneys, including a handful of current and former prosecutors, question the amount of time and energy Aronberg spends on the airwaves.

“From the defense standpoint, he’s not an active part of the day-to-day operations,” said attorney John Cleary. “He has the place on cruise control.”

Others are more critical.

“He should be serving the people of Palm Beach County,” said another defense attorney, who asked that his name not be used.

'Truth to power': Aronberg says TV appearances help Palm Beach County

While Aronberg declined to be interviewed by The Palm Beach Post, he agreed to answer written questions. In his responses, he insisted his appearances benefit those who elected him to office.

“Speaking truth to power – especially in these challenging times when misinformation is rampant – is important for the people of Palm Beach County as well as the rest of the country,” he wrote.

Some question whether he should be voicing opinions about cases in other jurisdictions where laws and criminal procedures may differ from those in Florida. 

“He’s talking about things he knows nothing about,” said Gregg Lerman, a longtime criminal defense attorney. “He’s not a federal prosecutor. He’s not a civil attorney. He’s a local state attorney.”

Aronberg, who graduated from Harvard Law School, pushed back against that narrative. “I offer the perspective of a 10-year state attorney and former assistant attorney general,” he wrote.

He acknowledged that while other former prosecutors serve as legal analysts on TV, he is rare because he is still in office.

TV time comes amid supervising 120 prosecutors, coping with staff turnover

Critics contend that his position gives him a gravitas he wouldn’t have if he was just Dave Aronberg, a West Palm Beach attorney.

Further, they question how he has the time to engage in televised banter while holding what is arguably the most powerful job in the county.

As state attorney, it is his responsibility to decide who will get charged with crimes and how they will be prosecuted. He oversees roughly 120 prosecutors in five offices, who are juggling hundreds of existing cases along with roughly 36,000 new ones that stream in each year.

Aronberg insisted that his extracurricular work, which he promotes on social media, doesn’t interfere with his day job.

“My appearances on national television news programs take place before or after the work day,” he wrote. “My Morning Joe appearances are typically before 7 a.m. The Situation Room and Ari Melber are from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. NewsNation Prime is from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Don Lemon is from 10 p.m. to midnight.”

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg speaks during the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition statewide bus tour's stop on Nov. 7, 2019, in West Palm Beach.

While he acknowledged preparation is needed to bone up on the complex cases he is asked to analyze, he said it all occurs on his own time. He doesn’t get paid for his appearances and, on the rare occasion he visits network studios, he said he picks up the tab.

However, existing and former prosecutors said, Aronberg’s television appearances are taking a toll.

Like state attorneys throughout Florida, Aronberg has seen a rash of resignations in the past 18 months. Line prosecutors say seeing their boss on national TV, instead of addressing staff shortages, is frustrating.

“It’s caused morale to crater. People are not happy at the office,” said one assistant state attorney, who recently left the office after four years. Like five current and former prosecutors who were interviewed, he asked that his name not be used, saying he worries about potential backlash.

“Brand new prosecutors are buried in work,” he said. “It’s not sustainable.”

In 2021, a record 23 assistant state attorneys either resigned or retired, according to Aronberg’s office. While 18 new ones were hired, by mid-March the ranks thinned again, with 15 positions still vacant.

Aronberg blamed the exodus on low pay. Calling it “a public safety crisis,” he in March joined other state attorneys at a press conference in Miami to push the Florida Legislature to increase their budgets so they could attract and keep prosecutors. State lawmakers responded by increasing pay levels by $5,000 to $10,000 effective July 1.

Unfortunately, prosecutors said, that isn’t enough to eliminate the salary gap. Even with the salary hikes, one current prosecutor said he still earns about $35,000 less than he could make working for a private law firm.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg features his basset hound, Cookie, on his Twitter page.

While the pay bumps are appreciated, people don’t accept jobs at the state attorney’s office to get rich, he said. They do so to get trial experience and to serve the community.

“What draws people to the state attorney’s office hasn’t changed, and the pay disparity hasn’t changed either,” said a prosecutor who has worked for Aronberg since 2019. “People are leaving because of the way the office is mismanaged.

“He’s too busy talking about these national media cases instead of beating the bushes to get people in the door,” he concluded.

While Aronberg comments on trials, his courtroom experience is limited

He and other prosecutors point to Public Defender Carey Haughwout, another elected official who both manages her office and handles high-profile murder cases.

Haughwout is an exception. Like his predecessors and most state attorneys, Aronberg has spent little time in a courtroom since taking office in 2013.

An animal lover, who often brings his beloved basset hound, Cookie, to work, he in 2017 snared headlines when he persuaded a jury to convict a West Palm Beach woman of animal cruelty.

And while Aronberg talks with ease to TV hosts about myriad concerns facing lawyers during emotional and complex jury trials, his courtroom experience is limited.

Court records show he has handled six cases in Palm Beach County since becoming a member of the Florida Bar in 1996. Only one, a lawsuit against an unscrupulous travel agency he handled when he was an assistant attorney general, was decided by a jury.

While not listed in court records, he also was involved in the 2011 prosecution of Top 6 gang leader Futo Charles although two statewide prosecutors did most of the trial work.

Current and former prosecutors said they could forgive him for not handling cases if they saw other evidence that he is looking out for them and the office.

“He was spending more time on Morning Joe than he does in the office,” complained one former prosecutor, who left in the summer of 2020. “If he was present and a leader, he could have a positive effect on morale.”

“I can’t remember a time when he walked around the office and said, 'How are you doing? How can we make it better?’” said another. “The only time you see him is at monthly meetings to say 'Happy Birthday' and congratulate prosecutors for winning a homicide case.”

A prosecutor who has worked in the state attorney's office for 13 years agreed that morale is low and turnover high. But, he said, the reasons are not clear-cut.

“A big part of it is pay,” he said. “Over the last 30 months, that’s become something that’s become a bigger issue for attorneys. Private firms are opening and hiring more attorneys. I don’t think folks are seeing the value of government work.”

He said he’s worked for three different state attorneys. Each had his own style. Each endured criticism.

Strong opinions about national cases but none about ones close to home

Office reviews of Aronberg’s television appearances are mixed, he said. “I think some people may be bothered by it and some are not bothered by it.”

Some of his critics question whether Aronberg should be talking about cases in other jurisdictions that have yet to go to trial. Most prosecutors, including those in Aronberg’s office, decline to talk about pending cases because it could improperly influence potential jurors who might be asked to decide them.

Aronberg said his comments don’t threaten anyone’s right to a fair trial. “There are many current attorneys who are regular contributors on such TV programs,” he said in his written response to questions. “My added voice on issues of public concern poses no actual risk of jury nullification or tainting a potential jury pool,” he wrote.

Jury nullification occurs when members of a panel reject evidence or refuse to follow the law because they want to send a message about a social issue or don't believe the law is fair.

Aronberg said he is careful not to talk about any cases his office is handling. But he sometimes offers strong opinions about people charged elsewhere in the country.

For instance, he blasted a Michigan couple, who were charged after their son was arrested in connection with a school shooting that left four students dead.

Instead of helping their son deal with his demons, Ethan Crumbley’s parents set the stage for his deadly rampage, Aronberg said during an interview on NewsNation. That’s why Michigan prosecutors took the unusual step of charging James and Jennifer Crumbley with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the attack on Oxford High School near Detroit.

“The Crumbleys are the worst,” Aronberg said, listing their reported misdeeds. “They are the ones who not only enabled their kid, they bought him the gun and when their kid was crying out for help, the mother LOLed him. … That’s the kind of parents the Crumbleys are.”

Aronberg said he is mindful of ethical guardrails. Before he began accepting invitations from networks three years ago, he got the green light from Al Johnson, his chief assistant state attorney who is a former executive director of the county’s ethics commission.

“My appearances do not have ‘a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding,’ as my appearances do not create ‘an imminent and substantial detrimental effect on that proceeding,’ ” Aronberg wrote, summing up Johnson’s conclusion.

Those who specialize in legal ethics said it doesn’t appear there is anything ethically wrong with Aronberg expressing his views on TV.

If Aronberg was shirking his responsibilities to the public, that could be a problem, said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. As state attorney, his clients are county residents and they must be given priority.

If, for instance, he is using the appearances as a launching pad for higher office, that could be used as evidence that he wasn’t zealously representing his clients.

But, in recent years, Aronberg has spurned prestigious positions many expected him to seek. In 2021, he said he would not apply to become U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

In a letter to U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and South Florida’s congressional delegation, Aronberg said he was “honored” by reports that he was being considered for the post.

“I did not, however, apply for the position because I love my current job and believe that our current national climate calls for a history-making appointment of the first Black U.S. attorney from Florida,” he wrote.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg (left) says and Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson, a former top Palm Beach County ethics official, evaluated whether his TV appearance pose a problem and found they did not.

Likewise, in February this year, when U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch announced he would not seek a fourth term for the Palm Beach County district, many expected Aronberg would enter the race to replace his fellow Democrat.

Instead, he issued a statement. “While I am humbled and grateful for the countless calls encouraging me to run for Congress, I remain deeply committed to the important work as State Attorney to keep our community safe and hold criminals accountable for their actions." 

Many suspect Aronberg, a former state senator, wants to leave the political arena and is hoping that the TV appearances will turn into a full-time paying gig.

But Aronberg dismissed that notion. “It is not my dream job or ultimate goal to be a TV personality or paid TV legal analyst,” he wrote.

'I think it’s a good thing to talk about the law'

Some applaud Aronberg’s outside work. Bennett Gershman, a distinguished professor of law at Pace University and a leading national authority on prosecutorial misconduct, said he has seen Aronberg on TV.

“I think he’s articulate. I think he’s very intelligent. He’s well informed on the issues he’s being interviewed about,” he said.

If Aronberg was talking about cases his office is handling, like some prosecutors have improperly done, that would be a problem, he said. But Aronberg hasn’t used his sizeable forum to influence the outcome of his own cases.

“What’s wrong with someone who’s very educated educating the public?” Gershman asked. “I don’t see any effort here to spin or distort areas of the law.”

Part of a prosecutor’s job is to educate the community about legal and public safety issues, he said.

“I think if a commentator tells the truth, if they are factual, if they’re not biased and if they’re intelligent, I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing to talk about the law.”

If prosecutors who work for him don’t like it, he said, they have an option: “Go work somewhere else.”

Jarvis agreed that what Aronberg is doing is unconventional for a sitting prosecutor. But, he said, that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.

The question is one for voters to ask themselves if Aronberg seeks a fourth term in 2024.

“Is this what you expected your state attorney to be doing?” he said. “It’s only a problem if voters think it’s a problem.” 

jmusgrave@pbpost.com