The Return of Loco Joe
As Joe Carollo stiffly marches down the stairs from his city hall office on the evening of April 27, an adoring crowd presses in around him. "Ca-ro-llo! Ca-ro-llo!" they chant as Miami's mayor struts into the commission chambers with the rigid indignation of a temperance leader in a distillery. His jaw is clenched, his lips drawn tight against his teeth. It's been six days since the riots that followed federal agents' seizure of Elian Gonzalez, and it seems Carollo has harnessed the public's fury.
"Everybody express themselves with the dignity and decorum that this building deserves!" Carollo warns before beginning the meeting. Despite the admonition he is anything but a calming influence. First he announces the ethnically charged firing of City Manager Donald Warshaw. Then he grills Miami Police Chief William O'Brien: How many tear gas canisters were used to control the crowds? How many canisters are in storage waiting to be unleashed on a defenseless public? How many were ordered from other police departments? The audience, which appears to be largely Cuban American, loves it. A bilingual susurration rustles through the crowd. "Comunista mierda," -- communist shit -- whispers one woman. "Janet Reno friend," says a man.
Toward the end of the assembly, just a few minutes before walking out into the cheering mob, Carollo declares: "This mayor will not stand for mob rule." He doesn't bask in his newfound popularity. He says he is tired and must go home to rest. But after exiting through the Plexiglas doors, he steps into his car and zooms off to Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), where he blasts his enemies anew over the airwaves.
Joe Carollo has been an angry man for many years. Since becoming Metro-Dade's youngest police officer in 1973, he has established a record of clashing with colleagues and betraying those with whom he has worked closely. His behavior haunts him. At least one former employer wouldn't rehire him, political enemies battled successfully to keep him out of office for nearly a decade, and a business associate has accused him of welshing on a debt.
Since returning to office in 1998, Carollo had been languishing in the shadows, much to his chagrin. There wasn't a lot he could do about it. He was a mayor with limited powers in a city that, because of a financial crisis and the misdeeds of its former leaders, was legally and effectively controlled by the State of Florida. Nationally and very much locally, all attention went to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. Carollo was so annoyed at his irrelevance that last year he organized an international summit of mayors to compete with an already established meeting prepared by his rival. He also berated Warshaw and others because he wasn't getting enough media exposure.
The pivotal event in launching Carollo's new media popularity was Penelas's March 29 hara-kiri press conference, when the leader of county government warned the nation the Miami-Dade Police Department would not assist federal officers in the removal of Elian from Lazaro Gonzalez's Little Havana house. The backlash caused Penelas to retreat from the cameras. Carollo, facing re-election in 2001, immediately stepped in to fill the void. He appeared on national television more than 50 times in April on shows such as Rivera Live and Nightline. He has been so effective that much of the nation doesn't even remember Penelas anymore. The mayor of Miami is Joe Carollo. For better or worse, he became our mouthpiece. And what a mouth.
Carollo's anger, fed by the media circus, has swelled. He doesn't sleep much. The hysteria that has swept through the community like a tsunami since Elian's seizure has drawn the mayor in its wake. From Chicago to New York, television audiences have laughed at Carollo's often rambling, sometimes incoherent speeches. The mayor has taken on a new cause that some say has driven him to the brink.
"What Carollo is doing is terrible for Miami, terrible for the Cuban community," says Maurice Ferre, former Miami mayor and Metro-Dade commissioner. "This fool goes out there where angels fear to tread."
Carollo's fiery confrontations with the city manager and police chief, as well as his heated diatribes against the federal government's actions, have prompted many to challenge the "New Joe" image that helped him to win several elections. Some civic leaders and journalists, too, question whether the Miami Herald's editorial page, and to a lesser extent its news staff, have handled Carollo with kid gloves. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a voter-fraud scandal that helped return Carollo to office in 1998. And Carollo provided the paper's staff with information that helped its investigation. Both Carollo and Herald editorial pages editor Tom Fiedler scoff at this. "To interpret that we are somehow wedded to Mayor Carollo's defense is mistaken," Fiedler says. Adds the mayor: "There has never been a single story about me in the Herald where they haven't taken a potshot."
Indeed Carollo sees himself as the defender of Miami's honor. "If I had not [appeared so often on national television] it would all have been one-sided against Miami," Carollo says from his city hall office with its sweeping view of Biscayne Bay, while sipping coffee from a Central Intelligence Agency mug. "The rest of America would not have heard our side."
Born in Caibarién, Cuba on March 12, 1955, Carollo left the island when he was six years old as part of Operation Pedro Pan, a wave of child immigration that began after Fidel Castro's revolution. His parents followed a short while later and the family settled in Chicago, where he was raised. Carollo cites his education at St. Jerome's, in the city's north end, as a defining influence. As an altar boy, he repeatedly was picked by Mayor Richard Daley to attend city functions. When he was fifteen years old, his family moved to Miami.
In 1973, at age eighteen, Carollo was anxious to get into public service; he applied to become a firefighter, a corrections officer, and a police officer. The cops hired him as a public service officer [PSO] in October of that year but soon determined he was a less-than-stellar employee, according to personnel records. "Officer Carollo's overall performance is satisfactory. He could improve his standing by using better police practices and procedures when confronting the public," wrote J.B. Hartley, Carollo's field training officer, in September 1975.
The prickly rookie responded in a way that foreshadowed his recent public tirades. "I was one of the senior officers in the squad that broke Officer Hartley into this job," Carollo wrote in response. "I ... was the one that was training him.... I feel that Officer Hartley graded this officer with the same complexes, prejudice, and incompetence, that was observed by me in him throughout the twenty days we were together."
The tit for tat prompted Carollo's squad leader to weigh in: "This writer basically agrees with Officer Hartley.... As a PSO Officer Carollo must learn to subdue his high degree of natural aggression until it can be channeled into a more appropriate assignment."
In 1976 Carollo again caused concern among his superiors. In July of that year he delivered to several colleagues a spoof advertisement from National Lampoon magazine. The ad showed a black man, a Latin man, and an Asian woman in traditional Klan garb helping a child on crutches. It read: "Today's Klan means a better tomorrow." A sergeant who interviewed Carollo reported, "He had placed this in those officers' mailboxes who, he thought, would find the item humorous." His superiors nonetheless issued Carollo a written reprimand for insensitivity. In August of that year, he was again cited, this time for excessive use of sick leave. (The file contains no explanation.) On September 8, 1976, Carollo resigned. "I feel that it would be extremely beneficial for me to return to school on a full-time basis and further advance my education," he wrote. The commander of the airport district, where Carollo was assigned, commented: "Based upon continuing problems in the areas of attitude, attendance, adherence to rules and regulations, and his less-than-satisfactory performance, Officer Carollo is not recommended for re-employment." (All his reviews were not negative. Carollo notes that he received a commendation after he was the first officer at the scene of a bombing at Miami International Airport, and helped preserve evidence.)
In November 1976 he married Miami native Karen Chestnut. Then in 1977, at age 22, he ran for Miami City Commission and lost to Rev. Theodore Gibson, a renowned civil-rights activist.
Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre remembers that race as "one of the dirtiest I have ever seen. [Carollo] was raw. There wasn't much sophistication to his rage." Arthur Teele, presently the only black on the commission, calls the campaign "the pill that poisoned the water in his relations with the black community."
Undaunted, in 1979 Carollo burnished his anti-communist rhetoric and defeated Demetrio Perez (who would win a commission seat in 1981). This time he won. Thus began a raucous decade in city hall where Carollo, according to the Miami Herald, was "the loose cannon that never stopped firing."
In the early 1980s, Carollo repeatedly clashed with Police Chief Kenneth Harms. Several episodes are described in a series of memos Harms addressed in 1981 and 1982 to then-Miami City Manager Howard Gary, recently obtained by New Times and the Miami Herald. The correspondence is of particular interest now, because authorities are investigating allegations by ousted City Manager Donald Warshaw that the mayor incessantly meddled in police business.
"Commissioner Carollo has attempted to manipulate and pressure me into actions which would benefit him personally," Harms wrote to Gary in an undated memo. Another note in the file alleges Carollo improperly challenged a friend's traffic ticket by calling the chief.
Carollo also pressed Harms repeatedly to provide police escorts for visiting Saudi millionaire sheik Mohammed al-Fassi, something the chief maintained he generally authorized only for heads of state, according to correspondence in the file. Gary authorized Harms to provide the escorts, and the sheik gave the cops cash tips. The officers surrendered the money to their superiors, but Harms called the episode "an embarrassment to the police department."
When Carollo applied for special-officer status in 1981, which would have allowed him to carry a pistol, the Miami Police Department's background check revealed problems with two past employers; Florida International University's public safety department, where Carollo worked as a security guard, told the cops Carollo "would not receive a favorable recommendation for future employment." And a statement from Wackenhut Corporation explained that "Mr. Carollo is not eligible for rehire ... and his suitability to carry a firearm was questioned." (Spokespeople for both groups later said they would rehire Carollo.) The commissioner withdrew his application and called Harms a "two-bit punk." Harms claimed his nemesis retaliated by voting against the purchase of much-needed police equipment.
Carollo didn't comment on Harms's specific allegations during an hourlong interview, but generally he said, "None of that is true. The truth is I caught Kenneth Harms in an illegal investigation of me and my family." Harms was trying to protect himself, the mayor adds.
Harms can't comment on the dispute except to chuckle and say, "Unless something changes dramatically, history is bound to repeat itself. All I can say is that those memos accurately reflected what I believed at the time." Harms retired in 1984 after suing the city for violating its contract with him. The settlement of that lawsuit prohibits him from talking about commissioners' actions.
In 1982 Carollo started what he termed an "executive-protection firm" called Genesis Security. In the next few years, two grand juries investigated Carollo to determine whether he used his position to help Genesis clients secure city business. Although no charges were ever filed, one jury report stated there was at least the "appearance of a conflict of interest," according to news accounts from that time.
Carollo also clashed frequently with Mayor Maurice Ferre. In 1983, during what Ferre thought was a truce, the mayor called a press conference so Carollo could endorse him for mayor. But in front of a room filled with TV and print reporters, Carollo bluntly declared, "I will not vote for Maurice Ferre." Many commentators called it the most famous double-cross in Miami's political history. "The man obviously has some very serious problems," Ferre says in retrospect. "He enjoys seeing people suffer. When he humiliates someone, you can see the gleam in his eyes." (Carollo maintains Ferre never approached him for an endorsement. "To double-cross somebody, you have to do something behind their back and I never told Maurice I would endorse him.")
Carollo also relentlessly attacked Howard Gary, Miami's first black city manager. He even voted to fire Gary in 1984, alienating many black voters in the process.
The time spent politicking cost him. In 1984 he and Karen, who had by then had two young children, divorced. "It's hard being married to a politician," he told Tropic magazine in 1996. About a year after the split, he married Maria Ledon.
Two years after his divorce, he single-handedly squelched a much-publicized deal, involving Cuban-exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, former United Nations ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and others, to develop part of Watson Island. Carollo believed it was a sweetheart deal that would cost taxpayers. To derail the project, he claimed some of the companies involved in the transaction had business ties in Cuba; that assertion prompted some investors to back out. An enraged Mas Canosa challenged Carollo to a duel. The feisty commissioner responded that they should use water pistols so Mas Canosa could cool down.
Carollo says the exchange improved city business practices. The so-called Carollo Amendment, which the commission approved after the Watson Island deal fell through, requires a voter referendum on sale of city property if there are less than three bidders.
To friends and supporters, Carollo's theatrics are the result of his intention to make Miami a better place. "I truly believe Joe is a honest guy who has principles and standards. He has a vision to make Miami a golden city," says Coconut Grove lawyer and Carollo backer Tucker Gibbs. "Unfortunately his personality clashes with others cloud this vision. And what we get as a result is a city in turmoil and a community that is laughed at."
By 1987 Carollo's time had run out. His constant feuding, and the number of enemies he had earned cost him reelection. Victor De Yurre, son of a former Havana mayor, defeated him by a wide margin. Carollo would not regain public office for eight years.
Robert Macaulay, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has practiced in Miami since 1983, says despite press reports Carollo never changed. He has always been duplicitous.
In 1990, after leaving office, Carollo hired Macaulay to review a proposed investment in a Kendall-based Asian fast-food franchise called Samurai Sam Jr. As Macaulay describes it, the company's owner, Sid Shane, declined to produce financial statements. Macaulay warned Carollo the investment was risky. "He decided to go ahead anyway." Macaulay says. "I treated him like a big boy." It turned out Shane's finances were not in order. The franchises never opened. Carollo lost $25,000, according to court papers. Macaulay sued on behalf of Carollo and won a $48,000 summary judgment in 1992.
That year Carollo opened a restaurant called Shogun Joe's, which served Japanese and Chinese food. "I make a mean special fried rice," he told the Herald. The restaurant flopped. He ended up owing Macaulay $16,000 in legal fees. Carollo pleaded poverty, Macaulay says. "He told me he didn't have a penny to his name." The lawyer shows some handwritten notes from a 1992 conversation that he contends prove Carollo told him "I'm insolvent. I have a $6000 car, that's it." Carollo allegedly even said he was pondering bankruptcy. Macaulay asserts the former politico claimed he had also fallen behind on his child support payments to Karen.
Carollo vehemently denies this. "Absolutely not. I never said that," the mayor declares. "It is amazing how much hate Mr. Macaulay has for me and my family."
Carollo eventually offered to settle for $5000, which Macaulay accepted. "He never once indicated he was displeased with my services," the lawyer says. Then in January 1993, in what Macaulay sees as a private version of the Ferre double-cross, Carollo sued the lawyer, claiming he had been negligent in not informing him of Shane's slipshod financing. Macaulay countersued, seeking $125,000, and won a confidential settlement. During the lawsuit Carollo forked over tax returns and made statements in court that showed he had earned as much as $925,000 per year in general business income.
"I believe that he lied to me in 1992 when he claimed he was broke," Macaulay says. "He thought I'd settle. This man tried to shake me down based on perjury and he lost. The bottom line is that either I committed perjury in that case or Joe Carollo committed perjury. The jury believed me, the judge believed me; common sense and the documents all show that I was telling the truth. Joe Carollo's history is consistently one of dishonesty. There is no new Joe; this is the same old Joe."
Smarting from the failure of Shogun Joe's, Carollo tried again to win elected office. In 1989 he ran for the commission against Miller Dawkins and lost, at least partially because of his role in the Howard Gary firing. He also came up short twice in 1993, losing to Ferre in a county commission race and to Willie Gort in a Miami commission bid.
It seemed Carollo's history of deceit and explosive behavior had caught up with him. His only chance to regain the public's favor was to retool his image. "I am convinced that Joe is as honest and incorruptible as any elected official can be," says his long-time colleague and lawyer Ben Kuehne. "When he sees people motivated by things other than what's in the best interests of the city, he becomes angry. Perhaps sometimes he is too vehement in his attacks."
In 1995 Carollo ran against De Yurre and a charismatic young lawyer named Humberto Hernandez. The Herald endorsed Hernandez, but two months before the election news broke that Hernandez was under federal investigation and the paper backed Carollo, who won easily. De Yurre attributes the loss to Miami's short-term memory: "People, including the Miami Herald, had forgotten what he was all about. People don't change. You make adjustments in life, but you are basically the same."
At the time Miami's mayor was Steve Clark, who was terminally ill with cancer. Clark died in June and a month later Carollo took the city's top job after a special election. When Carollo's abbreviated term was up in 1997, he decided to run again. His opponent this time was former mayor Xavier Suarez.
Carollo's embittered ex-lawyer Macaulay believed it was his civic duty to explain Carollo's swindling nature to the Herald, lest they endorse him again. He spoke with a Herald reporter, but the flattering profile of Carollo published in November made no mention of Macaulay's case. After Macaulay complained then-Herald executive editor Doug Clifton wrote a letter explaining the court battle was too "confusing" to include in the article. The editorial board's endorsement of Carollo was irrelevant to the decision, Clifton added. "Editorial recommendations have no bearing on news coverage. We try to make our news calls as free of bias as we can but recognize that news judgment is not a science. Perhaps, for example, voters would have been illuminated by an airing of the charges and counter charges in your dispute. We thought the pre-election air was clouded enough without it."
So Macaulay met with Miami Daily Business Review columnist Tony Doris, who wrote several stories on the case after the election. "We thought it was a prime example of the Herald having put Carollo in place and then taking great care to stand by their man," Doris recalls. "Here was an obvious example of involvement by the mayor in something that seemed untoward. And where was the Herald? [Carollo] had gone into a business he had never been in before in the middle of a recession, couldn't make it work, and then turned around and blamed his lawyer. It showed us a bit about his character."
In 1997 Suarez beat Carollo. This time Carollo's tendency to see conspiracies paid off. He sued to overturn the election based on massive voter fraud and won. In 1998 he took his place as mayor.
If Carollo was not paid enough critical attention by the Herald and the public, it's understandable. These were tumultuous times. In 1996 federal agents arrested City Manager Cesar Odio and Commissioner Miller Dawkins on bribery charges. The follow-up investigation disclosed a $68 million deficit in city finances. Then Hernandez was indicted in 1997 on real estate fraud and money-laundering charges. (He was later convicted). After the voter-fraud episode ended in early 1998, Miamians had had enough excitement. Joe promised stability.
"No one's going to laugh at the City of Miami with me as mayor," Carollo vowed in a March 1998 Associated Press story.
That of course was before Elian.
When Carollo fired City Manager José Garcia-Pedrosa and picked Police Chief Donald Warshaw to take Garcia-Pedrosa's place in June 1998, many people viewed it as a necessary step toward healing the city. Together Warshaw and Carollo promised to fight fraud and clean up city finances. City hall was filled with talk of the new, statesmanlike Joe.
But Carollo hadn't changed into a pacifist. If you believe his critics, he continued his divisive ways. He just hid them. For instance Warshaw disclosed recently that Carollo requested police to investigate four of five commissioners. Carollo allegedly wanted to probe Tomas Regalado for excessive charges on a city-issued credit card and a gas card; Arthur Teele to make sure he lived in his district; Willie Gort, who allegedly got a sweetheart deal on a new roof for his home; and Joe Sanchez for unspecified reasons. Several commissioners confirm those reports.
Carollo counters the list is an absurd concoction by Warshaw. "This is so outrageous," he fumes. "Why didn't he go immediately to the FBI? Why did he wait until after I fired him to release it? He had a legal obligation to file a formal complaint against me with law enforcement if this was true." (Gov. Jeb Bush last week appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the claims.)
Two city hall insiders also claim Carollo was angry because he received insufficient credit for reversing the city's financial tailspin. During a March meeting with Warshaw, Carollo told the manager he needed more publicity. "Carollo told [Don]: 'I'm the mayor of Miami. I'm the one who has to face the voters. I want my name and face in the paper every day,'" recalls a source familiar with the meeting. The mayor gave Warshaw 30 days. Carollo confirms the encounter took place and identifies it as the time he put the manager on probation; he won't comment further.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle recalls discussing the allegations against Regalado with the mayor: "He met with me a couple of times. He said he wanted his police department to be aggressive in public corruption. There was a point where Carollo believed he had subpoena powers, and we tried to discourage him from using them in order to let law enforcement do their job."
Then on Thanksgiving Day, a little rafter boy named Elian Gonzalez was rescued at sea.
At first the mayor was missing from the parade of politicians at the Little Havana home of the boys' relatives. But in February he began visiting to chat up reporters and meet with family representatives. Because of Carollo's Pedro Pan past, he says, he strongly identified with Elian. Like the boy Carollo came to a strange land at age six and was surrounded by strangers for six months. That empathy, as well as his politician's eye for opportunity, led him to dive headfirst into the custody controversy. "He seized the opportunity to gain popularity with a constituency where he has been unpopular for a long time," says Xavier Suarez.
Carollo became a staple on the nightly talk shows. In the last month of the Elian saga, he appeared dozens of times on television and radio. One of his favorite venues was CNBC's Rivera Live with Geraldo Rivera. He made nine appearances. He also talked on Radio Mambí almost every day. The hectic schedule took a toll. As he ran from broadcast to broadcast, his professional demeanor seemed to melt. The mayor saw conspiracies everywhere. He was one of the first to publicly espouse the theory that Elian's reunion photo with his father was a fake. "If you look at photos of when the boy was taken, on both sides of the face you see that the hair was much shorter than six, seven, eight hours later when the other photos were taken," he declared on the Fox News Channel talk show Hannity & Colmes on April 25.
When the feds announced they believed several Elian supporters at the house had guns, Carollo objected on Hannity in a rambling April 28 tirade: "The only people that were trying to somehow get some guns in there and trick people to bring guns in there was the Castro agents."
(Carollo has repeatedly said he was enraged that O'Brien did not call to alert him of the raid. It was humiliating, he adds, that he had to hear about it from a supporter.)
Carollo diverted Elian-inspired anger against his administration by blaming Donald Warshaw. On radio he urged commissioners to oust the manager. At any other time, Carollo, who has famously feuded with the commission, would not have support for the action. He denied the dismissal had anything to do with the Elian case. Few believed him.
During an April 25 appearance on Hannity, Carollo alleged Warshaw helped plot the raid to win favor with the feds, whom the mayor claimed were investigating the manager. "I suspect very strongly that the actions that [Warshaw] had our police chief take that Saturday was to buy him a few IOUs with the Justice Department," he opined.
The appearances were a kind of catharsis for the mayor. "Many times I had to hold myself back in the middle of a national TV interview, because I was having flashbacks [to fleeing Cuba as a little boy]," he says. "The reason I could go on for so many days without sleep is that I really believed in this."
Meanwhile boxes of bananas began arriving at city hall, mocking the mayor, and prompting him to tell Geraldo Rivera on May 1: "You know, these racist remarks of calling us a banana republic when we don't grow bananas commercially in Miami. We don't export bananas, only import them. This is racist."
Former mayors Ferre and Suarez are disgusted by Carollo's performances.
"That's the guy who is out in the public representing Miami?" Ferre scoffs. "That's where he excels: insulting people."
"I would have had myself as mayor hitting the street with the chief alongside me and the commissioner from the district in question to calm the masses," Suarez notes. He echoes a commonly held sentiment: Carollo aggravated an already tense situation.
But Carollo relished the attention; the more the cameras focused on him, the more combative he became. "He would call and ask if you saw him on the national television show," says one political consultant, who asked for anonymity because of close ties to the mayor. "He thought he was great, but I never saw him win one. His own ego kept him on those shows."
Recent weeks of political turmoil have taken a toll. Sources describe walking into Carollo's office on Dinner Key and finding the mayor snoozing in the middle of the afternoon. He has spent many nights on the Marta Flores late-night talk show La Noche y Usted (The Night and You) on Radio Mambí. The performances are full of hyperbole and venom. During a May 3 performance, for instance, he termed Warshaw "a descendant of Rasputin," one of the most notorious behind-the-scenes political manipulators in history.
Some community activists and political consultants are trying to tap the resentment against the mayor in the city's Anglo and African-American neighborhoods. They are pondering a recall effort. That signals political trouble for Carollo, who counted on strong support from those two groups in his three previous elections. But if he can sustain his current popularity in the Cuban community, he may retain his post. "Joe is not nuts. He is very focused," says a former campaign worker. "Joe knows what plays in Peoria, or in this case, Little Havana. It's good politics."
Most city hall observers concede the mayor made some political gain from the Elian mess. But even his friends are asking: At what cost? "It's upsetting. Joe was beginning to look like a responsible mayor. Then he just went crazy," says George DePontis, a campaign consultant who worked with Carollo. "I'm a long-time friend and I'm heartsick over it."
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