Did Carollo target Little Havana businesses? Jury weighs multimillion-dollar lawsuit

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo has spent decades running roughshod over political opponents, making controversial statements and spouting conspiracy theories.

On Wednesday just before 2 p.m. and after almost two calendar months of testimony by more than two dozen witnesses, a jury in the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse will decide if, this time, the commissioner went too far in his treatment of a pair of Little Havana businessmen. They will also decide if has to pay a price for it — both financially and perhaps politically.

The six-member jury will decide if Carollo violated the men’s First Amendment rights by “weaponizing” city resources in a campaign to close down several popular businesses they operate in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho district, all because they supported a political opponent of the commissioner, who he eventually defeated.

Before the jury broke Wednesday, the sides offered closing arguments, with plaintiff attorney Courtney Caprio arguing that Carollo tried to destroy businessmen William “Bill” Fuller and Martin Pinilla. She said the men should be awarded close to $100 million for the emotional costs, harm to their reputations and for punitive damages they suffered from Carollo’s targeting of their businesses.

“It was pure intimidation. It was meant to punish,” Caprio told jurors.

Carollo’s defense attorney Mason Pertnoy countered that Fuller and Pinilla’s problems were brought on themselves for creating a business plan that included not applying for proper permits. The attorney showed more than a dozen instances in which their businesses were cited for not acquiring permitting prior to construction or demolition. They also argued that Carollo never directed anyone to take aim at the men.

“Business as usual for the plaintiffs is building without permits,” Pertnoy told jurors. “That has been the evidence throughout. It’s just that simple. It’s not about targeting.”

Fuller and Pinilla, who operate several of Calle Ocho’s more popular restaurants and nightclubs, filed suit against Carollo in federal civil court five years ago. They claim the commissioner was hell-bent on using police and code enforcement to ruin their reputations and shut down their businesses, after they openly backed a political opponent of Carollo in 2017, who he would go on to defeat in a runoff.

During the trial that began April 10, the plaintiff’s attorneys, led by Jeffrey Gutchess, repeatedly offered testimony and played video that showed police and code enforcement descending through crowds on the businessmen’s properties late at night, demanding permits that were easily accessed through work computers, even in vehicles. Other video showed Carollo himself late at night arguing with workers about parking conditions.

Carollo argues that he was only trying to improve the quality of life for adjacent residents and that Fuller and Pinilla serially abused the permit process by building and remodeling without proper permitting.

Strange events during trial

Almost from the get-go, what would turn out to be an almost two-month trial was beset by problems and bizarre events — several outside of the courthouse.

Only three days into the trial that began April 10, the proceedings were disrupted by an historical rainfall that forced a move from the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale to the Wilkie D. Ferguson federal courthouse in downtown Miami. The old Fort Lauderdale courthouse’s electrical system was damaged by the more than 25 inches of rain that fell on downtown Fort Lauderdale in one evening. U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Smith of the Southern District of Florida made the decision to bus jurors to Miami.

Then things got really weird: After testifying in Miami, former Police Chief and Carollo foe Art Acevedo, was followed from the courthouse to a restaurant in Coral Gables by a couple of private detectives. Police questioned the investigators, but no explanation was ever given.

A few days later, a juror informed the judge of a run-in at a parking garage with a man who told the juror to go on social media and see what Carollo is “capable of.” Carollo’s attorneys pounced, alleging the man in the garage was a business partner of Fuller and Pinilla and demanding a mistrial. Smith, angered, said the defense motion was filled with misleading information and he rejected the request.

Carollo also angered Judge Smith when he was a no-show on a day in which he was listed as an official witness. And it’s still unclear what will come from a photo taken in the courtroom by one of Carollo’s attorneys, a strict no-no in federal court. Smith blasted the defense team, telling attorney’s Ben Kuehne, Mason Pertnoy, Marc Sarnoff and Tom Scott, that if they don’t come up with an agreeable alternative in a month, they will be likely be suspended from practicing law in the Southern District for two years.

In Miami, three former police chiefs testified against Carollo, two who claimed he pushed them to try and find reasons to shut down businesses run by Fuller and Pinilla. A third chief testified he told the commissioner to stay away from speaking directly with his staff. One of them Richie Blom, a former Doral police chief and also a former Carollo chief of staff, said Carollo insisted he measure the distance from one of the men’s businesses to a neighboring religious establishment to see if it was close enough to force the pulling of a liquor license.

A former administrative assistant testified Carollo asked her to lie under oath and say that Steve Miro, a high-ranking liaison on Carollo’s staff who the commissioner was trying to remove, had sexually harassed her.

Finally, after almost three weeks, the trial returned to Fort Lauderdale, but without working elevators, forcing jurors and others attending the trial to walk up to the second floor each day.

Still, a handful of the most powerful people in Miami defended the commissioner, bolstering his contention that everything he was doing was simply to improve the quality of life of the adjacent residential community and that Fuller and Pinilla had repeatedly built out and restored properties without proper permitting.

In a heated exchange with plaintiff attorney Jeff Gutchess, Miami City Manager Art Noriega said Carollo never pressured any of the city’s 4,600 employees to look at any of the men’s business entities. And, Noriega said, when Carollo did speak with police about potential problems, he only did so after asking the city manager for permission.

The trial for the lawsuit filed five years ago finally began in early April after two appellate court filings by Carollo failed to stop the proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to hear the case. Carollo’s exorbitant attorney fees — which city records obtained by the Miami Herald show were almost $2 million even before the trial began - are being paid by the city. City Attorney Victoria Mendez blamed the cost on Fuller and Pinilla and said Carollo had the right to be subsidized for doing his job.

The fight between Carollo and the two men began long before trial, with Fuller inviting media to the front steps of City Hall in 2019 with claims that the commissioner had done work on his Coconut Grove home without proper permitting. He was later cited by code enforcement.

What exactly the verdict means for Carollo — a bombastic commissioner first elected to a seat in Miami in the early 1980s — isn’t yet clear. He owns a home in Coconut Grove that Miami-Dade records show is valued at $1.6 million.