A day after a jury told Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo to pay $63.5 million to two Little Havana businessmen who made a compelling case that they were victims of a years of political retaliation campaign, the obvious questions were:
Were Miami-Dade prosecutors aware of their allegations that Carollo “armed” code enforcement officials and other city employees to target their businesses? Did they ever consider doing a criminal case? And if not, why?
Read more: Significant and costly legal loss for Joe Carollo. Jury awards Miami businessmen $63.5 million
The answer to the first question is clearly yes. William “Bill” Fuller — owner of popular nightclub Ball & Chain, which has been a repeated target of code enforcement — told the Miami Herald on Friday that he made multiple visits to the state’s attorney’s office in Miami-Dade, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, during an 18-month stint after filing her lawsuit against Carollo in 2018. Fuller said he hoped to convince his office that Carollo’s actions were criminal.
His case wasn’t strong enough, Fuller said he was told. He said prosecutors have said the commissioner must be caught in a clear criminal act, preferably on record, for any charges to stand. “They specifically needed live action,” he said.
The answer to the other two questions is much murkier — but, technically at least, there is an open investigation into allegations of corruption and abuse of power by Miami city commissioners and administrators, including Carollo. They were brought up long after Fuller tried to make his case to prosecutors through someone else – fired former Miami police chief Art Acevedo. The responsibility for this investigation was quickly transferred to Broward County, which last November obtained approval from Governor Ron DeSantis to extend the investigation for another year.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which generally does not confirm or deny any open investigation, would not discuss the Carollo case or the federal civil court jury’s decision to criticize the commissioner with a bill of massive liability – a bill that financial records indicate it has no chance of paying.
Read more: Who will pay Carollo’s $63.5 million judgment? Probably not Joe, who doesn’t have the dough
But legal experts told the Herald the bar for winning a criminal case is much higher than a civil suit – proof beyond a reasonable doubt instead of a convincing preponderance of evidence. The lawsuit filed by Fuller and his business partner, Martin Pinilla, also focused on a free speech issue. They successfully argued that Carollo tried to ruin their reputations, damaged their businesses, and violated their First Amendment rights simply because they supported a political opponent of the commissioner in a runoff election.
More difficult to do criminal cases
According to legal experts, it is more difficult to bring criminal charges against politicians, especially when there is no crystal clear evidence of payment for gambling.
Miami attorney David O. Markus, for example, successfully defended former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in a recent corruption trial over allegations that he lied to FBI agents and directed political contributions to personal accounts during his 2018 gubernatorial bid. A jury acquitted Gillum of the misrepresentation charge and a federal judge dismissed the fraud trial after the jury was unsuccessful to agree on them. Prosecutors then decided to drop those charges rather than retry him.
Markus said not all civil cases like Carollo’s are blueprints for a criminal prosecution.
“People turn civil cases into criminal cases too quickly,” Markus said. “We really should be doing the opposite – asking why we have so many criminal cases when the civil system is the most appropriate forum. Jail is not always the answer.
There is, however, still an open investigation into allegations of corruption involving Miami City Hall. Where this might go is uncertain.
Shortly before Acevedo was kicked out in October 2021 by commissioners in a move led by Carollo – after a two-day circus-like hearing in which he was torn for not understanding Miami’s Cuban community and for wearing an Elvis costume that was too tight – he went to the Miami-Dade State’s Attorney’s Office with a handful of complaints about commission members. That was about 18 months ago, long after Fuller had made a series of office visits.
Acevedo’s allegations cover the same ground
Chief among Acevedo’s allegations was that several commissioners were corrupt and had interfered in police affairs. In January 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 failing to carry out their “personal agendas and vendettas”.
An allegation by Acevedo covers part of the same ground detailed in the civil lawsuit filed by Fuller and Pinilla: that police and code enforcement officers were used to target companies 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 had look forward to defending him in court.
Carollo, who plans to appeal the civil verdict, also defended his actions throughout the two-month trial, saying he properly went through the city manager to try to fix repeated code violations and construction issues. in the properties belonging to the two businessmen.
Acevedo’s tumultuous six-month stay in Miami left him embittered. He voluntarily flew in from Colorado to take a stand against the politician he sees as most responsible for his outing. The former chief testified that even before he was sworn in, he was called to Little Havana late one evening to watch police and law enforcement descend on a Fuller-owned business under construction.
He then told jurors how Carollo called late on a Friday night at one of Fuller’s events and said that “there are communist agitators here right now and you have to stop them.”
Yet less than a month after the fired chief’s complaint, Fernandez Rundle, with the governor’s consent, had referred the investigation to the Broward County District Attorney’s office due to a conflict of interest. Fernandez Rundle said a key witness was discovered to be the brother of a senior attorney in his office.
While Fernandez Rundle’s office did not respond to questions about the Carollo civil case on Friday, a spokesperson discussed transferring the Acevedo investigation to Broward prosecutors. That office, which took over the investigation in November 2021, will not comment on open investigations, the office’s public information officer, Paula McMahon, said Friday.
The status of this investigation is unknown, but there has been some activity. Fuller told the Herald that he spoke to investigators from the Broward prosecutors’ office, though he wouldn’t go into the details of the discussion. And last November, when the time-limited investigation was due to wrap up, DeSantis approved a request from Broward investigators for an additional year.
At the very least, the Carollo ruling — and that staggering $63.5 million judgment — should put city 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 was unclear how the jurors’ decision could 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 future criminal and ethical investigations,” Alfieri said.