The federal trial of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo has followed the same pattern of his political career: It’s stretched longer than it should. It’s been full of twists and turns. And it’s been downright bizarre.
The trial has wrapped up its sixth week, and it’s anyone’s guess when it will end. Attorneys and jurors are getting a two-week break, and testimony is expect to resume on May 30. The city of Miami is on the hook for Carollo’s legal costs.
Carollo, who’s been in public service for four decades, is a known bully who demeans citizens who speak during commission meetings. Most notably, he put the public through an expose on how a tight Elvis costume outlined former Police Chief Art Acevedo’s crotch area. That really happened during a hearing that led to Acevedo’s firing in 2021.
This is the first time someone has tried to hold Miami’s most mercurial, vindictive and controversial politician accountable at such high level — and it’s about time.
Plaintiffs William Fuller and Martin Pinilla accuse Carollo of violating their First Amendment rights by weaponizing the city’s code enforcement against their businesses after they supported his opponent in the 2017 election. Fuller and Pinilla own several establishments along Southwest Eighth Street — Calle Ocho — including the historic club Ball & Chain. They are asking for $2.5 million and possible punitive damages.
Being a bully isn’t necessarily unconstitutional and bad behavior isn’t necessarily illegal. The Broward County jury could still find in Carollo’s favor. But the past several weeks in federal court have painted a familiar picture of a man fueled, it seems, by paranoia and vengeance.
For Miamians used to the city’s good-ol’-boys-club style of politics, this might be just Carollo being Carollo. But the trial brings to light how a city that fancies itself as cutting edge — the next New York or San Francisco — is still run as it was 30 or 40 years ago.
Witnesses’ take stand
Former police chiefs, including Acevedo, staffers and a city manager who took the stand said Carollo targeted the plaintiffs’ businesses as a political vendetta, the Herald reported. Carollo’s former receptionist testified he asked her to make a false sexual harassment accusation against two of his former male aides — one of whom later testified Carollo asked him to spy on Fuller. After his testimony, Acevedo reported he was followed from the courthouse to a restaurant. Police determined the two men tailing him were private investigators, but it’s unclear who hired them.
The best TV writers couldn’t make this stuff up.
Taking the stand two weeks ago, Carollo accused a dozen witnesses of lying and he called his former receptionist’s testimony “ridiculous.” His lawyers contend that he didn’t target Ball & Chain’s owners but was looking out for the Little Havana residents who must coexist with the neighborhood’s rowdiness.
In typical Carollo style, he testified that wealthy Venezuelans are trying to buy up Little Havana. He went off on a weird tangent about a story he heard of Iranians infiltrating a mosque in Cuba with nefarious aims somewhere in Latin America. U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Smith cut him off, the Herald reported.
The trial got even more bizarre Tuesday when the judge briefly threatened Carollo’s defense team with prison time after one of them took a photo inside the courtroom, a violation of federal law. The photo appeared to depict the plaintiffs’ attorneys speaking to a member of the media and was included in a sealed filing from Carollo’s defense, the Herald reported. Smith had previously prohibited lawyers from speaking to the press.
Carollo’s attorneys — some of whom snickered among themselves during witness testimonies — unsuccessfully asked for a mistrial a number of times, the Herald reported. Perhaps the point is to turn federal legal proceedings into a dragged-out spectacle. The longer this trial takes, the more expensive it likely is for the plaintiffs, and the better it is for Carollo. He’s not the one footing his legal fees.
As of last August the city had paid close to $500,000 to the law firm of Benedict Kuehne, the Miami New Times reported. The Herald Editorial Board asked for the latest costs, but hasn’t yet received a response. A spokeswoman did not answer whether the city will be on the hook for possible damages if Carollo loses or if he settles the civil lawsuit.
“The Florida Supreme Court has made it very clear that public officials are entitled to legal representation at public expense to defend themselves against litigation arising from the performance of their official duties while serving a public purpose. . . . The purpose of this common law rule is to avoid the chilling effect that a denial of representation might have on public officials in performing their duties properly and diligently,” a statement from Miami’s office of the city attorney read.
For a great part of his career, Carollo has been bankrolled by the taxpayers whose resources he’s accused of abusing. His trial isn’t any different.