Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo is being sued personally over accusations that he tried to torpedo Little Havana businesses in a campaign of political retaliation.
But its Miami taxpayers who are on the hook for his legal bills. And the cost of defending Carollo in federal civil court is going to be hefty, already adding up to more than $1.9 million — and that’s before the commissioner’s trial even began more than six weeks ago.
City records show that most of the billing, almost $1.8 million, came from the law firms Shutts & Bowen and Kuehne Davis Law. Also billing smaller amounts are the personal defense injury firm of Marrero Wydler and the Fort Lauderdale firm of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.
The final tab for city taxpayers will likely be much higher — perhaps another million dollars, maybe more before it’s all over.
That’s because records provided to the Miami Herald through a public records request only show that billing through early April, before the trial began. Jurors in the trial of the controversial commissioner were chosen April 10. So the city records do not reflect six weeks of fees from multiple attorneys and other legals costs that have stacked up since.
Though the lawsuit only names Carollo, the city will cover the full amount of the commissioner’s legal expenses. That’s because, according to City Attorney Victoria Mendez, the Supreme Court of Florida has made it clear that public officials are entitled to legal representation at public expense to defend themselves for doing their job.
Mendez lays blame for the costly litigation on Little Havana businessmen William “Bill” Fuller and Martin Pinilla, who claim the commissioner set out to destroy several of their businesses — including the popular and iconic Ball & Chain nightclub — after they threw their support behind the commissioner’s political opponent in a 2017 election that that was eventually won by Carollo.
“We are in this predicament because of unscrupulous business owners who think they can do whatever they want in contravention of city codes and ordinances,” the city attorney said by text, in response to questions from The Miami Herald. “They think by filing lawsuits they can bully elected officials and public servants into bending their wills.”
According to records provided by the city of Miami, the billing cycle on Carollo’s legal battle began in early 2019, only a few months after the lawsuit was filed.
The suit argues that Carollo pressured department heads to “weaponize” code enforcement and police to harass them in an attempt to shut down several of their businesses. During the six-week trial, plaintiff lawyers have shown repeated videos of police and code enforcement officers entering their Little Havana businesses late at night and demanding to see permits. It’s paperwork, the lawyers say, that city employees could have easily found on computers in their cars or at their desks.
Carollo has denied targeting the men, arguing their businesses sometimes ignored or violated codes and permits. His defense so far has focused on several instances in which Fuller and Pinilla were cited for not having proper permitting for demolition and renovation on a number of properties they run in the heart of Little Havana on Calle Ocho, or Southwest Eighth Street.
In one case, the businessmen failed to install overhead sprinklers on the ceiling of Ball & Chain. The commissioner has argued that he hasn’t used his office to pressure anyone to cite the businessmen. He says any actions he’s taken has been to improve the quality of life of residents who live in the surrounding neighborhood.
In a trial that has seen more than its fair share of twists and turns, attorneys and litigants have been strictly forbidden from speaking with the media by U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith of the Southern District of Florida. Just last week, Smith blasted Carollo’s lead attorneys Ben Kuehne, Marc Sarnoff of Shutts & Bowen and Mason Pertnoy, threatening them with prison time, after another attorney working for the commissioner took a photo in the courtroom, which is strictly forbidden.
Carollo, a Miami Commissioner since 2017 and who served as the city’s mayor for several years between 1996 and 2001, fought all the way to the Supreme Court to try and toss the lawsuit that was filed in 2018. His argument for qualified immunity — which protects government workers from being sued for doing their jobs _ was rejected at the appeals court level and was not taken up by the Supreme Court of the United States.
It’s not exactly clear how much more the city will cover in attorney’s fees for the trial, which is expected to run at least another week or two, but it’s certain the amount will increase substantially.
Though not exactly apples to apples because it was a criminal trial, when former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi beat federal bribery charges in 2014 for allegedly receiving payments from Chicago businessmen looking to receive lucrative federal grants, the attorney’s fees for just the trial was north of $1 million.
After Wednesday’s testimony, Judge Smith gave jurors – who were initially told to expect the trial to conclude in early May – a break for undisclosed reasons. Testimony is expected to resume on May 30.