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Federal civil trial opens for Joe Carollo, accused of 'harassment'

City of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo at a city commission meeting on Tuesday, August 14, 2018.
Miami Herald
City of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo at a city commission meeting on Tuesday, August 14, 2018.

Opening arguments began Monday in Broward federal court as two Miami−Dade business partners faced off against Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo, whom they accuse of using his influence in a "campaign of harassment" against them and their businesses.

In their lawsuit, originally filed in 2018, businessmen William Fuller and Martin Pinilla accused the powerful Miami politician of using the city’s code enforcement department, along with its police and fire departments, to retaliate against their bar and restaurant businesses by shutting down events and slapping them with code violations. They allege the actions cost them nearly $28 million in profits.

They say Carollo’s anger toward them is rooted in their support of Alfonso "Alfie" Leon, who was in a 2017 runoff race against Carollo for the commission seat for District 3, which includes Little Havana. Leon is a former policy adviser to Frank Carollo, who is Joe Carollo’s younger brother. Carollo ultimately won by about 600 votes. Before the election, Fuller and Pinilla held a rally for Leon at one of their properties in Little Havana.

During his opening statement, Jeffrey Gutchess, Fuller and Pinilla's attorney, outlined an alleged campaign by Carollo to repeatedly "target" the plaintiffs businesses through Code Enforcement, the city building department, and the City Attorney's office.

Gutchess showed jurors a slideshow that included videos of Carollo outside his clients' properties taking pictures and arguing with employees.

The presentation also included excerpts of emails and letters from current and former city employees claiming that Carollo was targeting specific businesses. Those employees include former City Manager Emilio Gonzalez, and former Miami Police Department Chief Art Acevedo. These excerpts have not yet been admitted into evidence.

In his presentation, Mason Pertnoy, Carollo's attorney, accused Fuller and Pinilla of repeatedly doing work without permits and preforming unsafe construction and demolition. He said Carollo has simply been trying to keep the residents of his district safe, and that Fuller and Pinilla just want to get away with breaking the law.

Pertnoy also said Carollo could not have performed any action against the plaintiffs without the support of the city commission and city manager, meaning making the argument that Carollo himself cannot be personally liable.

The lawsuit has languished in federal court for years as Carollo’s attorneys filed appeal after appeal to get the case dismissed. They contend Carollo is protected by the doctrines of "qualified immunity" and "legislative immunity," meaning that his alleged actions were under his purview as a city commissioner, and therefore he is not culpable.

Numerous federal judges have rejected the appeals by attorneys representing Carollo and the city. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The City of Miami has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees to defend Carollo and the city, according to city documents obtained by WLRN following a public records request.

Between 2019 and October of 2022, the city paid the law firm of Benedict Kuehne, one of Carollo’s attorneys on the case, $488,203. The city has hired other law firms, including the Krinzman, Huss, Lubetsky, Feldman & Hotte; Marc David Sarnoff, P.A.; Cole Scott & Kissane; and Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, records show.

After Monday's jury selection and opening arguments, the first witness is expected to testify on Tuesday at 1 p.m.

Notable witnesses for the plaintiffs include former Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez, who testified last year that thecity was “targeting” Fuller’s properties; former Miami Commissioner Ken Russell; former Carollo aide Steve Miro; and former Miami Police Department Chiefs Jorge Colina and Art Acevedo.

The defense intends to bring Carollo himself as a witness, as well as Building Department Director Asael Marrero, Assistant City Attorney Rachel Dooley, and other city employees and members of the city administration.

A separate federal lawsuit filed by the owners of Ball & Chain seek to hold the city separately liable for the financial damages to their businesses.

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
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