After civil-court spanking, could Joe Carollo face a criminal case? There’s an open probe

Jose A. Iglesias/jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

A day after a jury told Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo to cough up $63.5 million to a pair of Little Havana businessmen who made a persuasive case they had been victims of a years-long political-retaliation campaign, there were some obvious questions:

Did Miami-Dade prosecutors know about their allegations that Carollo had “weaponized” code enforcers and other city staff to target their businesses? Did they ever consider making a criminal case? And if not, why?

Read More: Big, expensive legal loss for Joe Carollo. Jury awards Miami businessmen $63.5 million

The answer to the first question is a clear yes. William “Bill” Fuller — owner of the popular Ball & Chain nightclub, which was a repeated target of code enforcement — told the Miami Herald on Friday that he made several visits to the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle over an 18-month period after he had filed his lawsuit against Carollo in 2018. Fuller said he hoped to convince her office that Carollo’s actions were criminal.

His case wasn’t strong enough, Fuller said he was told. He said prosecutors said the commissioner needed to be caught in some clear criminal act, preferably on tape, for any charges to stick. “They specifically needed live actions,” he said.

The answer to the other two questions is much murkier — but, technically at least, there is one open investigation into allegations of corruption and abuse of power by Miami city commissioners and administrators, including Carollo. They were raised long after Fuller tried to make his case to prosecutors by someone else — fired former Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo. Responsibility for that investigation was quickly transferred to Broward County, which last November got approval from Gov. Ron DeSantis to extend the probe for another year.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which typically won’t confirm or deny any open investigations, wouldn’t discuss the Carollo case or the federal civil-court jury’s decision to slam the commissioner with a massive liability bill — one that financial records indicate he has no chance of paying.

Read More: Who will pay Carollo’s $63.5 million judgment? Probably not Joe, who hasn’t got the dough

But legal experts told the Herald that the bar for winning a criminal case is much higher than a civil lawsuit — proof beyond a reasonable doubt instead of a compelling preponderance of evidence. The complaint brought by Fuller and his business partner, Martin Pinilla, also, in essence, hinged on a free-speech issue. They successfully argued that Carollo had tried to ruin their reputations, damaged their businesses and violated their First Amendment rights simply because they had backed a political opponent of the commissioner in a run-off election.

More difficult to make criminal cases

Bringing criminal charges against politicians is more difficult, legal experts say, particularly when there is no crystal-clear pay-for-play evidence.

Miami attorney David O. Markus, for instance, successfully defended former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in a recent corruption trial over allegations that he lied to FBI agents and steered political contributions to personal accounts during his 2018 run for governor. A jury acquitted Gillum of the false-statement charge and a federal judge declared a mistrial on fraud charges after the jury failed to reach an agreement on them. Prosecutors then decided to drop those charges rather than retry him.

Markus said that not all civil cases like Carollo’s are blueprints for a criminal prosecution.

“Folks are too quick to turn civil cases into criminal matters,” Markus said. “We really should be doing the opposite — asking why we have so many criminal cases when the civil system is the more appropriate forum. Jail isn’t always the answer.”

There is, however, still an open probe of corruption allegations involving Miami City Hall. Where it might go is uncertain.

Shortly before Acevedo was forced out in October 2021 by commissioners in a move led by Carollo — after a two-day circus-like hearing during which he was ripped for not understanding Miami’s Cuban community and for wearing a Elvis costume too tightly — he went to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office with a handful of complaints about commission members. That was some 18 months ago, long after Fuller first paid the office a series of visits.

Acevedo allegations cover same ground

Chief among Acevedo’s allegations was that several commissioners were corrupt and had interfered with police matters. By January of 2022, Acevedo filed a lawsuit in federal court against Miami, City Manager Art Noriega and Commissioners Carollo, Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Manolo Reyes. Acevedo claimed the commissioners targeted him for not carrying out their “personal agendas and vendettas.”

One allegation from Acevedo covers some of the same ground detailed in the civil lawsuit filed by Fuller and Pinilla: That police and code-enforcement officers were used to target businesses run by Fuller. In a Miami Herald article written about the lawsuit, Carollo denied any wrongdoing, Noriega called it retaliation for Acevedo’s own “shortcomings” and City Attorney Victoria Mendez said she looked forward to defending it in court.

Carollo, who plans to appeal the civil verdict, also defended his actions through the two-month trial, saying he properly went through the city manager to try to correct repeated code violations and construction issues at properties owned by the two businessmen.

Acevedo’s tumultuous six-month stay in Miami left him embittered. He willingly flew in from Colorado to take the stand against the politician he considers most responsible for his exit. The former chief testified that even before he was sworn in, he was called to Little Havana late one evening to watch as police officers and code enforcement descended on a business that was owned by Fuller and under construction.

He then told jurors how Carollo called late one Friday night during one of Fuller’s events and said there “were Communist agitators here right now and you need to arrest them.”

Yet within a month of the fired chief’s complaint, Fernandez Rundle, with the consent of the governor, had passed the investigation along to the Broward County State Attorney’s Office because of a conflict of interest. Fernandez Rundle said it was discovered that a key witness was the brother of a senior attorney in her office.

While Fernandez Rundle’s office on Friday did not respond to questions about the Carollo civil case, a spokesman referred to the transfer of the Acevedo investigation to Broward prosecutors. That office, which took over the investigation in November of 2021, won’t comment on open investigations, the office’s public-information officer, Paula McMahon, said Friday.

The status of that investigation is unknown, but there has been some activity. Fuller told the Herald he had spoken to investigators with the Broward prosecutors’ office, though he would not go into details of the discussion. And last November, when the time-limited investigation was set to run out, DeSantis approved a request from Broward investigators for an additional year.

At the very least, the Carollo decision — and that staggering $63.5 million judgment — should put the city’s leaders on notice, said University of Miami ethics professor Tony Alfieri.

Alfieri, founding director of UM’s Center for Ethics and Public Service and Community Equity Lab, had testified earlier against a motion by Carollo’s defense to dismiss the lawsuit. He said it’s unclear how the jurors’ decision might impact potential criminal and ethics cases. But their findings could be influential.

“The fact that the jury found that Carollo acted intentionally is likely to be highly relevant to both criminal and ethics investigations going forward,” Alfieri said.