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Former Miami city manager testifies that the city was 'targeting' certain Little Havana businesses

Joe Carollo Herald.jpeg
C.M. GUERRERO
/
Miami Herald
City of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo at a city commission meeting on Tuesday, August 14, 2018.

In an explosive newly released court document, a former City of Miami manager testified under oath that he witnessed first-hand that City of Miami commissioner Joe Carollo was “targeting” code enforcement against certain businesses in Little Havana in order to shut them down.

The new transcript was released as part of a lawsuit winding its way through federal courts, alleging that the City of Miami “deployed a deliberate policy” of harassing and shutting down a group of bars and restaurants in Little Havana with which Carollo had a political feud. Another similar lawsuit is also separately in the federal courts.

City of Miami attorneys sought to keep sworn testimony from former City Manager Emilio Gonzalez confidential. In an order entered this week, U.S. District Court Judge Lissette Reid ruled that the testimony cannot be kept secret.

The Little Havana businesses are owned by William Fuller, Ben Bush, Zack Bush, and Martin Pinilla. The alleged targeting and the resulting business closures resulted in the loss of $27.91 million in profits for the businesses, the suits allege.

“It was very evident that Misters Fuller and Pinilla were being targeted by Commissioner Carollo,” said Gonzalez. “[Carollo] made no secret that the fact that whatever it is they were doing was wrong. He one time, early on when I started as city manager, [he] took me on a midnight tour … of Eighth Street pointing out businesses which he thought had no business on Eighth Street, and it just sort of escalated and escalated.”

“I would call that targeting,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was the city manager of Miami from 2018 to 2020, a position that is essentially the driver’s seat of the municipal government.

The sworn interview and deposition were recorded in February 2021 and June 2022.

Gonzalez said his administration’s relationship with Carollo and city attorney Victoria Mendez deteriorated when he started impeding concerted efforts to target the businesses.

In one exchange, Gonzalez recalled city attorney Mendez getting hands-on in the efforts to allegedly target the businesses for violations.

“There was instances that I can recall where [Mendez] gave us a list of properties to research, and we went back to her and said these are all Fuller’s properties, and then she came back the next day or a couple days later with more properties and said, ‘here, I threw in some non-Fuller properties so it doesn’t look like we’re piling on,’” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez
Clip of a deposition given by former Miami city manager Emilio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez wrote a memo to record what he described as the “very improper” conversation with the city attorney. The document was handed to Gonzalez during the deposition, but the city alleges it cannot locate the file among official records, wrote Judge Reid. Four other memos documenting similar encounters were written by Gonzalez, she added.

Calls to the Miami city administration, commissioner Joe Carollo’s office and the office of Miami city attorney Victoria Mendez for this story were not returned.

The allegedly harassed properties in Little Havana have been frequently targeted by code enforcement after Ball & Chain owner Bill Fuller hosted a 2017 campaign event for Alfie Leon, a candidate for the city commission who ran against Carollo. The popular salsa club on Calle Ocho was fully shut down by the city in November of 2020 over alleged code violations, along with a string of other businesses reflected in the ongoing litigation.

Judge Reid likened the city attorney’s role in the allegations to “that of a corporation’s in-house counsel” whose sole role is to protect the corporation.

It was for that reason that the city attorney’s office tried to block the release of the testimony. The city attorney argued that the city alone could legally represent Gonzalez in the interview and deposition, and since Gonzalez relied on the advice of a personal attorney, the content must be kept confidential.

Reid ruled that the interests of Gonzalez and the city attorney’s office were “not aligned” and that the testimony cannot remain hidden from the public.

“Arguably, the City Attorney’s instructions [to Gonzalez] could be construed as business or political advice and not as legal advice pertaining to anticipated litigation,” wrote Reid.

The city attorney’s office offered to represent Gonzalez for his interviews, but he testified: “I have told them that I have my own representation.”

Commissioner Carollo was upset when he first heard Gonzalez was going to testify in the case, Gonzalez testified. He cited a phone call between himself and city attorney Mendez in which she repeatedly suggested that it would be in the "best interest" of Gonzalez to not testify in the case.

“She told me that Commissioner Carollo was visibly upset and that was not good and that I should go to grave lengths to make them happy,” said Gonzalez. “The Spanish version is 'pasar la mano,' which is like a stroke. 'Pasar la mano', make them happy. I said there’s nothing to make happy about. If I am called to testify, I’ll testify, I’ll give the truth.”

Gonzalez testimony
Clip of a deposition from former Miami city manager Emilio Gonzalez.

J.C. Planas, an attorney with a stalled effort to recall Commissioner Carollo from office, said he is "shocked" by the sworn testimony, particularly what it reveals about the alleged role of city attorney Mendez.

“This puts in black and white what I already suspected,” said Planas. “This is a pattern that we’ve repeatedly seen by the city attorney ever since Carollo was elected.”

"I would be shocked if Vicky Mendez is not a part of any ongoing investigations against sitting commissioners. She might not be a target, but I’m sure her conduct has come up," said Planas.

The allegations unearthed in Gonzalez’ testimony closely mirror allegations of rampant corruption and targeted code enforcement in the city made by former chief of police Art Acevedo, who likened the city to being run by “the Cuban mafia.” Those comments led to Acevedo, a Cuban native, getting fired last year after being submitted to two full days of public hearings in which his entire law enforcement history dating back to the 1980s in the California Highway Patrol was dragged in the mud.

On his way out the door, Acevedo wrote a memo calling on the FBI to investigate the inner machinations of the City of Miami government.

Carollo has publicly and in the courts categorically denied that he has engaged in unscrupulous behavior.

A separate federal lawsuit filed by the owners of Ball & Chain seek to hold Carollo personally liable for the financial damages. Carollo and the city attorney's office have spent more than $400,000 in legal fees to argue the commissioner should be given legal immunity since the alleged unlawful behavior was connected to his official role as an elected official.

Lower courts found that the alleged conduct would be far outside the scope of his official role as commissioner and that he could be held personally liable for his actions, if proven in court.

The legal battle went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court this year, where the justices kept lower court ruling in place.

A federal trial for that case is scheduled for April 2023.

On Thursday of this week, the City of Miami commission approved a $120,000 settlement to Steven Miro, a former close aide to Carollo who said in court that he witnessed Carollo “engaging in a felony” while he was on staff. He alleged that Carollo used city funds to buy food and supplies for a political fundraiser for Commissioner Alex Diaz De La Portilla, while Portilla first ran for the seat in 2018.

Miro was fired shortly after Carollo learned he spoke to investigators about the incident. The $120,000 settlement to Miro was approved by the Miami commission based on a wrongful termination lawsuit Miro filed against the city. The city admitted to no wrongdoing in the settlement, and Carollo recused himself from the vote to approve the settlement.

In 2020, when Gonzalez made the decision to leave his post as the city manager of Miami, he publicly said that the city government had become untenable, marked with animus and personal vendettas that made their way into official business of the city.

“Our city commission meetings have devolved into a circus,” Gonzalez wrote in his resignation letter. “Personal discussions have given way to the politics of personal destruction.”

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.