Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo's alleged vendetta against one of his political opponents is headed to court. Bill Fuller, a co-owner of the Little Havana nightclub Ball & Chain, filed a lawsuit against Carollo today in federal court for what they say are obvious First Amendment violations. Fuller and his business partner, Martin Pinilla, contend that, because they let Carollo's 2017 election opponent, Alfie Leon, hold a rally on one of their properties, Carollo is now using the city government to try to hurt their businesses.
"The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees every citizen the absolute and fundamental rights to freedom of speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances," the suit reads. "For ten months, Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo has obliterated these fundamental rights by using the power and influence of his government office to engage in a campaign of harassment, retribution, and retaliation against Plaintiffs."
The reason for that retaliation is clear, the lawsuit claims: "Carollo’s actions, designed to destroy Plaintiffs’ businesses and reputations, is pure political payback — targeting Plaintiffs simply because they dared to support Carollo’s opponent in a run-off election, and because they filed an Ethics Complaint against Carollo."
The 48-page lawsuit asks a court to award Fuller and Pinilla $2.5 million in damages after Carollo allegedly engaged in a nonstop effort to smear, defame, and shut down their businesses in Little Havana. The businessmen are not suing the city but rather Carollo and ten anonymous city employees who allegedly aided the commissioner.
Carollo's lawyer, Ben Kuehne, did not immediately respond to a message New Times sent this morning. But Carollo has repeatedly denied the claims in public. He has called his critics "liars" and says he's simply trying to rid his district of business owners who want to gentrify and "de-Latinize" Little Havana.
Fuller's claims against the commissioner emerged this past March when he filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust about the alleged harassment, which he infamously said included Carollo showing up outside Ball & Chain around 1 a.m. this past February and hollering "I am the law!" in Spanish at one of the club's valet parking attendants. He also said Carollo tried to shut down Fuller and Pinilla's company Christmas party by directing an underling to falsely claim Fuller was distributing "illegal drugs."
The commissioner even went on Miami's Spanish-language Radio Caracol and claimed, without evidence, that Fuller had ties to Cuban spies, Venezuelan guerrillas, and money-launderers. Fuller says these statements are untrue.
But there's ample evidence that Carollo — who has a decades-long history of slapping political opponents with code violations, to make something of an understatement — has been less than truthful or upstanding about this entire affair. After Fuller withdrew his ethics complaint in August, opting instead to prepare a federal lawsuit, New Times obtained video that suggests Carollo lied to the ethics board during that investigation. Moreover, one of Carollo's former aides, Stephen Miró, told investigators that Carollo pressured him to lie during the ethics probe. (Carollo denies that claim.)
Evidence also suggests Carollo broke city law while going after Ball & Chain. The City of Miami charter states it's illegal for city commissioners to direct code-enforcement employees to take action against local businesses. Commissioners instead must take their complaints to the city manager, who can decide whether to take action. Giving orders to the city manager's underlings can get a commissioner removed from office, whacked with a $500 fine, or hit with 60 days in jail. Multiple code-enforcement employees told the ethics board that Carollo ordered them to look into Fuller and Pinilla's businesses, as well as other businesses in Little Havana.
Much of the lawsuit filed today recounts Fuller's claims of Carollo's increasingly bizarre and insane actions against his company.
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"These are not mere allegations," the suit says. "They are confirmed by Carollo’s own aide, City of Miami employees, a Miami-Dade Ethics Commission investigative report, and even by another Commissioner of the City of Miami. There are also reams of text messages, emails, photographs, and even live video showing Carollo in action lurking around Plaintiffs’ properties in alleyways and behind trees in the middle of the night on numerous occasions. In fact, Carollo has himself stated that he is the 'new Sheriff in town,' and that he 'is the law.'"
Fuller's lawsuit issues a dire warning about what could happen if Carollo goes unpunished — namely, the City of Miami could morph into an authoritarian regime not unlike those in Cuba or Venezuela. Much of the suit's details — that Carollo allegedly urged underlings to harass the operators of a food truck parked on Fuller's property by claiming they were serving "spoiled food," for example — have been detailed in public already.
But the suit provides some new details: Fuller and Pinilla allege Carollo is trying to retaliate against Viernes Culturales, a monthly art festival in Little Havana's Domino Park that Fuller helps organize. Fuller and Pinilla say that Carollo has been shutting down the park to disrupt the local festival and that an unnamed commissioner has admitted the commissioner is doing this to "fuck with Fuller."
"Carollo must be held liable in his individual capacity for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in damages he has caused," the suit says.