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Joe Carollo ends testimony saying police were 'weaponized' against him

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.

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo is finally off the stand Friday after four days of witness testimony in the federal case brought against him by two Little Havana business owners.

Entrepreneurs William Fuller and Martin Pinilla sued Carollo in federal court for allegedly violating their First Amendment rights after they supported his political opponent by weaponizing government power to selectively enforce the city code against their properties. In total, the plaintiffs are seeking $2.5 million in damages and “at least” an additional $10 million in punitive damages from Carollo.

Carollo was called by the plaintiffs on Monday as an “adverse witness,” and attorney Jeffrey Gutchess spent several days attempting to paint a picture of Carollo as someone fixated on his clients, who intimidated city employees and others around him and who considered himself powerful enough to skirt the rules.

Testimony from the commissioner meandered between several outlandish topics as the commissioner launched into several tangential narratives, despite over a dozen objections from Gutchess and specific instruction from Judge Rodney Smith.

Tangents Carollo indulged in included information he allegedly received about an Iranian mosque set up in Havana to convert Cubans to Islam, alleged connections that one of Fuller and Pinilla’s tenants had to the Venezuelan government and Fidel Castro, as well as conspiracies he claimed existed within the city government to “intimidate” and “destroy” him.

In particular, he claimed that former Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez “weaponized” Miami Police Department officer Javier Ortiz against him in 2019, when Ortiz and other officers accused Carollo of “stolen valor” for allegedly claiming to have served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Carollo testified on Friday that he was in the “inactive reserve” for the Marines and was not a veteran.

Over the week of questioning, Gutchess showed the jurors numerous emails and documents drafted by Carollo’s employees that sought detailed information on properties and businesses associated with Fuller. One document was drafted by Carollo’s former aide, Steven Miro, who created a list of addresses for properties owned by Fuller and his family members, including his sister and mother. Carollo said Miro made this document of his own accord to help the commissioner’s attorneys in the event he was accused of voter fraud, because Carollo believed Fuller improperly voted in Miami’s District 3.

Gutchess also mentioned that two businesses associated with Fuller and Pinilla, Ball & Chain Bar and Taqueria El Mexicano, were inspected by city officials 84 times.

READ MORE: Former Miami city manager testifies Joe Carollo 'terrified' city staff

When asked why his employees created a list of possible records requests about various properties and businesses associated with Fuller — including Azucar Ice Cream Company — Carollo said this was done to assist his lawyers in preparing a legal defense in Fuller’s lawsuit against him.

The plaintiffs played video from a Feb. 14, 2019 commission meeting in which Carollo called city employees from code compliance and the Miami Police Department (MPD) to answer why they were not issuing violations on Fuller’s properties in his district. Carollo specifically questioned then-MPD Chief Jorge Colina during that meeting, asking him why his officers did not write an after-action report after inspecting a Fuller property.

Colina told Carollo after a heated exchange: “You’re not gonna bully me like you do the other people, I’m not intimidated here, and this is absolutely ridiculous.” At that meeting, Carollo accused Colina of being “employed” by some outside parties.

Carollo’s attorneys have stuck to two main defenses in the suit: that the commissioner was acting within his duties as an elected official to point out legitimate code violations and concerns within his district, and that he had no power to directly mandate the city to take any actions against Fuller or Pinilla, so he cannot be personally responsible for alleged selective enforcement.

Carollo said his main concern was for the “safety, tranquility, health and welfare” of the residents of his district.

His attorneys brought up multiple code violations at several of Fuller’s properties, and life safety concerns arising from alleged unpermitted work at the plaintiffs’ businesses.

The defense also attempted to prove that Carollo was not singularly fixated on Fuller and Pinilla’s properties because in walk-along tours of Little Havana he conducted with Code Compliance officials, he pointed out concerns at properties that he claimed had no association with the plaintiffs.

“There is no one other than the plaintiffs that made any allegations about retaliation for supporting my opponent,” Carollo said. He added that the plaintiffs made it seem that “the rules are for everyone but not for them.”

While the plaintiffs sought to cast Carollo as an intimidating force that harasses businesses, the defense tried to convince jurors that Carollo is a candidate who was chosen and embraced by his constituents. Carollo made numerous references to his election victories, saying he was elected democratically because “we live in America.”

Though Carollo is off the stand, the trial is far from over, as the plaintiffs have not finished their questioning and Carollo’s defense has not had a chance to call a witness of their own.

The trial continues on Monday, May 8. The venue will return to the federal courthouse Fort Lauderdale, after flooding in Broward County forced the case to migrate to Miami.

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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