A group of residents, business owners and activists gathered at Miami City Hall this week to call for the resignation of City Commissioner Joe Carollo.
The call comes after a federal jury found him liable for violating the civil rights of business owners who supported his political opponent by targeting them for code enforcement violations.
“Our judicial system has spoken. Our community has spoken. And now we need the city to be returned to us,” said Daniel Figueredo, an owner of restaurant Sanguich de Miami on Calle Ocho in Little Havana. “It’s time to rebuild Little Havana under true leadership. We’re asking that the city of Miami demand Joe Carollo’s resignation."
During the federal trial, Figueredo testified that city code enforcement targeted his business for code violations, at one point forcing him to shut down. The jury found the sandwich shop was targeted because its landlord, Bill Fuller, supported Carollo’s political opponent in a 2017 commission race.
“His actions stripped us of our mental sobriety and our financial footing,” Figueredo said, referring to Carollo.
But he believes the prospect of Carollo resigning from office is slim. “He’s not capable. This is a man of too much pride and ego, and he’s known to do everything in his power to maintain his position,” Figueredo told WLRN.
Commissioner Carollo’s legal team says that they will soon exercise their right to an appeal. Carollo has maintained that sworn testimony against him in federal court by business owners, former aides and three police chiefs was entirely fabricated.
“They are all lying,” Carollo declared on the stand at trial.
The calls for resignation came from across the geography of the city. Mel Meinhardt, the spokesperson for the Coconut Grove-based community advocacy group One Grove, called on Carollo to have the “courage” to “step aside.”
“We are tired of politicians using their power and using the city and the county’s funds – taxpayer dollars – for their bully pulpit,” added Anthony Durden, a Black street preacher who works in the Overtown and Liberty City areas.
Several speakers called for Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove Carollo from office. Under the state constitution, the governor can remove an elected municipal officer for abuse of office, even if there are no associated criminal charges.
“The governor has removed other elected officials – some who there’s been no proof of malfeasance – as in this case. Or using the power of your office against your constituents,” former Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo told WLRN. Both DeSantis and Carollo are Republicans.
The federal jury found that Carollo acted under “color of law” to target businesses with which he had a political vendetta, in violation of their First Amendment rights. The actions were found to have exceeded his official duties or responsibilities, and he was found personally liable in a personal capacity for $63.5 million.
The finding of personal liability means that taxpayers are likely not on the hook for any of the judgment. In the meantime, city residents paid close to $2 million in attorney fees for Carollo’s defense, due to how City of Miami’s top attorney Victoria Méndez interpreted state law.
As WLRN has previously reported, Miami city commissioner Manolo Reyes has voiced skepticism that taxpayers should continue footing the legal bills as Carollo takes the case to federal appeals court.
Additionally, a separate federal civil trial is pending, largely based on the same set of facts and allegations. That second case, however, includes the City of Miami as a defendant, and taxpayers could foot the bill for any damages that arise.
Speakers said that to protect city residents, the commission should appoint an independent counsel to decide how to proceed.
“She cannot serve as both a witness in the second case – for which she has already been deposed – and as an attorney. That is unethical and it is inappropriate,” Thomas Kennedy, an activist and city resident, said of the city attorney. “She should have recused herself.”
City attorney Méndez has acknowledged to WLRN by email that she was deposed in that case.
City commissioner Sabina Covo told WLRN that she agrees an outside counsel is needed to assess what actions would be in the best interest of city residents.
"I think it's time to use an outside counsel," said Covo. "We need to look after the taxpayers. We cannot continue spending all this money on attorney's fees. And it's not just this case, we're spending too much on attorney's fees across the board."
She told WLRN she is pushing City Manager Art Noriega and City Attorney Méndez for "transparency" about how much money the city has spent on attorney's fees in the Carollo litigation. She is hoping for a response by Thursday, when there is a planned city commission meeting.
"If not, we're going to have to think of another strategy to get this under control," she said.
This story is published as part of a collaboration between City & State Florida and WLRN News. Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. He can be reached at email@example.com.