Miami-Dade County

Miami election challenge goes to trial and reveals personal life of Joe Carollo

Recently elected Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo testified in Miami-Dade civil court Friday during a trial that will determine whether his election will be overturned.
Recently elected Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo testified in Miami-Dade civil court Friday during a trial that will determine whether his election will be overturned.

The question of whether Joe Carollo lived in the district he won an election to represent is steeped in the personal details of his life with his wife, Marjorie.

Did they bring towels with them when they moved in after signing a 14-month lease for a West Brickell apartment on Sept. 22, 2016? Did they shower and make coffee in the morning? Did they watch TV there and sleep there at night together? Why were their electric bills so low — less than $50 — during the first few months of the lease?

Did they “do private things” together when they lived there while two other family members still resided in their Coconut Grove house?

Such is the substance of a trial that could overturn the results of a contentious election that saw Carollo beat Alfonso “Alfie” Leon in a November runoff to represent District 3 on the Miami City Commission. Leon is accusing Carollo of failing to meet the requirement that candidates live in the district they seek to represent for at least one year before the deadline for qualifying to make the ballot — in Carollo’s case, by Sept. 23, 2016.

In a frigid room inside the Dade County Courthouse, attorneys for both men on Friday opened a trial presided over by Judge Thomas Rebull that will continue Monday morning.

During a long day of testimony, the Carollos took the stand to answer questions from their attorney and attorneys for Leon, who sued Carollo the day before losing the November runoff. Leon’s attorneys later amended that suit to challenge the election result.

Joe and Marjorie Carollo spent several hours testifying that they spent nights at the Brickell Station Lofts apartment they leased so he could run for an open commission seat in District 3. They said that during the day, she would return to the Grove home on Morris Lane to tend to her son and 90-year-old mother-in-law. He would work, campaign, do handiwork around the Morris Lane house he wanted to sell and try to spend time with his mother.

Leon’s attorneys, J.C. Planas and Matthew Sarelson, emphasized the amount of time Carollo spent outside the West Brickell apartment and how his FPL bills — obtained through December — were unusually low until the summer months of 2017. In the first few months of 2017, Carollo’s bill didn’t crack $50. In October, he paid the utility $154. Meanwhile, his electric bills at the Grove home were higher in spring of 2017 than they were in the same period of 2016.

Leon and attorneys
Alfonso “Alfie” Leon, left, speaks to his attorneys J.C. Planas, center, and Matthew Sarelson during a break in Friday’s trial. Joey Flechas

“There were days I would spend more time [at the Brickell Station Lofts apartment], because as the campaign was getting closer, I would spend more time at the district,” said Joe Carollo during his testimony. He said that the bills went up significantly after Hurricane Irma, which prompted the rest of his family, including two dogs, to move into the Brickell apartment.

The attorneys drilled the Carollos on their home life habits. Joe Carollo scoffed at very specific questions, at one point responding sarcastically when Planas asked him if he remembered his first meal at the Brickell unit. In his signature monotone, Carollo said he needs a seven-day pill box just to keep track of his blood pressure medication so he doesn’t forget to take it or take double the dosage.

“You think I’m gonna remember that?” Carollo retorted.

“The loser is challenging lifestyle, claiming that he doesn’t like the way that Joe and Mrs. Carollo live,” said Benedict Kuehne, one of Carollo’s lawyers, after the hearing adjourned. “That’s not what residency is all about.”

The day’s testimony delved into private aspects of the Carollos’ lives that ranged from the mundane to the personal. Ever wondered what kind of coffee Joe Carollo drinks?

“I had Bustelo or Pilon, depending on which one was on sale,” he said.

Marjorie Carollo spoke about her commitment to care for her mother-in-law and her son, who is on the autism spectrum. She and her husband said they wanted to keep their family comfortable in familiar surroundings at the Grove home — with their dogs Daisy and Luigi — until Irma forced them to evacuate to the apartment, where all four still live. Joe Carollo said hurricane damage to the house on Morris Lane is preventing him from selling it and using the money to buy a more permanent residence inside District 3.

Leon’s team also hammered at the fact that Carollo changed his voter registration weeks after he signed a lease for apartment 504 at Brickell Station Lofts and updated the address on his drivers license in late December, hoping to paint a picture that the Carollos didn’t truly “live” in the apartment by Sept. 23, 2016.

“What the case law suggests is there has to be a combination of intent and physicality,” Planas said.

Kuehne questioned Marjorie Carollo whether she and her husband did “private things” at the apartment while her son and mother-in-law were living in Coconut Grove.

She smiled and elicited laughs from the whole room with her response.

“A lot more.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech