Miami Commissioner raised no defense against civil rights violations in jury trial

Grant Stern
5 min readMay 24, 2023
Composite image: Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo and the Ball & Chain Bar which he targeted, leading to a federal civil rights trial.

A federal judge just exposed that the Miami Commissioner’s multi-million dollar trial team defending him in a $2.6 million civil rights trial didn’t bother raising any legal defenses.

Commissioner Joe Carollo stands accused of shepherding an official retaliation campaign against one of Miami’s highest-profile nightclubs, all because the owners rented space to a rival campaign six years ago.

Miami taxpayers had already blown $2 million defending Carollo against the resultant civil rights lawsuit for First Amendment retaliation before the trial began.

Now, after a dramatic monthlong trial, the Commissioner stands defenseless for his illegal acts.

Yesterday, in a terse one-page order, Judge Rodney Smith instructed the lawyers to deliver an agreed set of jury instructions today and wrote the following as an express warning to the Commissioner’s beleaguered defense team (embedded below):

“The Court notes that, in trial, Defendant has not asserted any legally recognized affirmative defenses. Pre-existing code violations are not an affirmative defense”

“He has no defense to the suit,” says Florida civil trial lawyer Faudlin Pierre. “It’s as if you have no defense at all.

“You’re just asking the jury not to believe the other side’s case, at that point.”

A litany of the Commissioner’s former employees has testified against him with allegations ranging from retaliatory conduct to his coercion of false sexual harassment charges.

“An affirmative defense is a defense in which the defendant introduces evidence, which, if found to be credible, will negate… civil liability, even if it is proven that the defendant committed the alleged acts,” writes Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

Pages 5–7 of the 11th Circuit’s model jury instructions for Civil Rights Constitutional Claims should apply to this case.

Plaintiffs Bill Fuller owns the Ball & Chain Bar alongside brothers Zack Bush and Ben Bush. He and Martin Pinilla are partners in the Barlington Group, a firm that made a major investment into Little Havana—and Calle Ocho—when the area was still rundown.

It has grown to be an attraction for Miami’s global tourist visitors over the last decade.

But ever since late 2017, when Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo won election to the seat representing Little Havana, the ex-Mayor with the domestic violence problem started attacking the two men and their businesses by pressuring the City of Miami to engage in retaliatory selective code enforcement against them.

During the course of one day during the trial, two former Miami Police Chiefs, Jorge Colina, and Art Acevedo, each testified against Carollo.

Both Chiefs noted that the Commissioner took unprecedented action to direct the police department to retaliate against businesses and tenants of the Ball and Chain ownership group.

After his testimony, Chief Acevedo discovered a pair of men tailing him from the federal courthouse to a meeting with his lawyer in Little Havana.

A third former-police chief also testified against the Miami Commissioner that same day but in his capacity as former Chief of Staff to the lawmaker.

Former Carollo political aide and later city commission district liaison Stephen Miro testified to his motivations to attack Fuller and Pinilla springing from a single campaign event for Alfie Leon, who finished second in the 2017 run-off election for the seat now held by the defendant.

Miro described how Carollo built multiple lists of properties owned by the two men and, after getting into office, directed him to photocopy the second, most extensive list—one of which he kept—for dissemination to city officials in violation of the municipal charter to target enforcement against his perceived political opponents.

“He kept a copy of the list in his back pocket,” testified Stephen Miro in federal court.

Former Carollo aide Stephen Miro outside of Miami’s federal courthouse after testifying against the Commissioner.

Discussing one of the most bizarre incidents in his testimony, Miro recounted his first-hand witness of an incident where the City Commissioner went to the Ball & Chain’s valet parking lot after midnight and proclaimed, “I am the law” to the parking valet and flashed his official identification.

“If you disagree with the City of Miami,” testified the parking valet in Spanish with a translator, “then they cancel you.”

The most damning witness in the case against Joe Carollo throughout the trial has been Joe Carollo himself.

The Commissioner admitted to detailed knowledge about the Leon campaign event, the ownership of the lot where it was held, and his belief that Fuller and Pinilla were funding a lawsuit against him (they were not) over his qualifications for office.

Carollo detailed all of his retaliatory acts in extensive testimony but tried to defend himself by saying there were existing code violations guiding his actions.

Pointedly, the judge ruled that line of argument out as a legal defense.

All the plaintiffs have to prove is that they engaged in First Amendment-protected activity (politics), that the Commissioner retaliated using his office and that it deterred them from further protected speech.

If the above events weren’t dramatic enough, Joe Carollo’s lawyers got caught violating court rules—and a federal criminal statute—by taking photos inside the courthouse.

Judge Smith “lost sleep” over the photography incident, which he learned of in a sealed court filing by Carollo’s defense team. Ultimately, he is prescribing at least a 2-year practice bar in the entire Southern District of Florida’s federal court system for all of the counsels for the commissioner.

Jury deliberations are expected to begin next week after closing arguments on May 30th.

The plaintiffs are asking for $2.6 million and punitive damages to be awarded by the jury.

Here’s the judge’s order:

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Grant Stern

Miami based columnist and radio broadcaster, and professional mortgage broker. Executive Editor of OccupyDemocrats.com. This is my personal page.