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Jurors begin deliberations in Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo's federal civil trial

After two months of labored arguments, witness testimony and numerous delays in federal court, attorneys for Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo and the plaintiffs, Little Havana business owners William Fuller and Martin Pinilla, have delivered their closing arguments. The verdict is now up to jurors to decide.
Jose A. Iglesias
El Nuevo Herald
Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo is being sued for damages by two Little Havana businessmen who claim the commissioner used city resources to try and harm their business interests after they sided with a political opponent of Carollo’s in an election six years ago.

The protracted federal civil trial of Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo is coming to an end.

After two months of labored arguments, witness testimony and numerous delays in federal court, attorneys for Carollo and the plaintiffs, Little Havana business owners William Fuller and Martin Pinilla, delivered their closing arguments on Wednesday.

Jurors did not reach a verdict late Wednesday and will resume deliberations Thursday morning.

Jurors were instructed to decide on the following:

  • Did Fuller and Pinilla engage in First Amendment protected speech by supporting Carollo’s political opponent, Alfonso Leon.
  • Did Carollo retaliate against them using city government offices, beyond his regular duties because of their speech.
  • And did Carollo act with “malice” or “reckless indifference” to the plaintiffs’ rights.

According to plaintiffs’ attorney Courtney Caprio’s closing arguments, the answer to those questions is an unequivocal yes. Caprio compared Carollo to a “tyrant” who disregards the guard rails of constitutional rights.
“Joe Carollo smashed through those guard rails to impose his own whims on Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla,” Caprio said during a 90-minute long closing speech.

Caprio called Carollo “the worst kind of bully” who engaged in a campaign of retaliation against the plaintiffs for supporting his political opponent in a 2017 election, and used the offices of code compliance, police, fire and the city building department to harass their businesses and tenants.

READ MORE: 'Sickening': Joe Carollo hits back at harassment accusations during federal trial

In their lawsuit, originally filed in 2018, the plaintiffs seek millions of dollars in damages to make them whole, and to “punish” Carollo and deter other elected officials from engaging in similar alleged conduct.

When discussing the plaintiffs’ proposed damages during his own defense arguments, attorney Mason Pertnoy said: “Give me a break, man!”

Pertnoy said at length that the allegations and the lawsuit as a whole are part of “Fuller’s fantasy,” a concoction made to cover up and justify Fuller’s own alleged misconduct when it comes to his businesses, and that the amount of damages sought is ridiculous.

The defense argued that Fuller and Pinilla’s business model is to do work without permits at their properties, wait to be cited and only then come into compliance when the city requires them to.

“They do what they want when they feel like it regardless of the rules,” Pertnoy repeated to the jury.

The defense also asserted that Carollo was just doing his job as a commissioner, and that he would have been concerned with the plaintiffs’ properties even if they never supported his opponent. If jurors agree with that contention, the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim would be quashed.

The federal civil trial, which began in early April, brought together a “who’s who” of Miami political figures from the past six years to the witness stand.

Former Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez testified that Carollo “targeted” Fuller and Pinilla’s businesses and “terrified” city employees. A former receptionist for the commissioner told jurors that she was coerced into lying on Carollo’s behalf. Andtwo former police chiefs, including Art Acevedo, came to the courthouse to testify to Carollo’s alleged attempts to use police resources to go after businesses tied to the plaintiffs, including the Ball & Chain Bar on Calle Ocho.

But in the past few weeks, Carollo’s defense team was publicly scolded by U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith, who has been incensed by the attorneys’ actions throughout the trial.

On May 17, the judge lambasted Carollo’s legal team after attorney Jesse Stolow took a photo inside the courtroom, a serious breach of conduct during federal proceedings.

Carollo’s team filed the photo, which reportedly showed an attorney for the plaintiffs speaking to a member of the media, in a sealed document to the judge, according to the Miami Herald.

Smith threatened to send the entire defense team to prison over the photo, and ordered each of them to certify that they destroyed any copy of the image that was circulated outside the courtroom. The lawyers were no longer allowed to bring their cellphones into the courtroom.

He also required the attorneys to attend a hearing on June 16 to discuss possible sanctions for their behavior, including a possible “two-year voluntary suspension from the Southern District of [the] Florida bar and completion of ten hours of ethics continuing legal education,” according to an order Smith filed with the court.

More recently, when ordering the parties to submit joint instructions for the jury, the judge told the commissioner’s camp that they had no defense to speak of.

“The Court notes that, in trial, Defendant has not asserted any legally recognized affirmative defenses,” Smith wrote.

Much of Carollo’s defense has centered on the idea that he was protecting the life and safety of Little Havana residents by bringing attention to code violations at the plaintiffs properties.

Carollo himself said during his own witness testimony that his main concern was for the “safety, tranquility, health and welfare” of the residents of his district.

The case, however, was brought against Carollo in his personal capacity, not in his role as an elected official, and several appeals courts have found that his role as a commissioner cannot shield him from the allegations.

“Pre-existing code violations are not an affirmative defense,” Smith stated in his order.

The court will reconvene when jurors reach a unanimous verdict.

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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