It started as a simple traffic violation — a quick crossing of a double-yellow line on a Coconut Grove street in August last year, caught by an observant cop. It got complicated when the driver, Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo, decided to call the police chief after he was pulled over.
Ultimately, Carollo drove away with just a warning — but days later, a local gadfly filed a complaint saying the commissioner had abused the power of his office by calling the chief. In November Miami-Dade County’s ethics advocate — a prosecutor of sorts — agreed.
Now, it’s a full-blown soap opera, with hearings under oath, accusations of a police conspiracy and an ugly fight between the police chief and a local blogger.
On Tuesday, Miami-Dade County’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust held a two-and-a-half hour hearing to determine if Carollo is guilty.
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Commission Advocate Michael Murawski determined there was probable cause to believe Carollo abused the powers of his office. Carollo could have quietly settled then for a slap on the wrist, or at worst, a $1,000 fine.
Instead, he decided to fight — a rarity, said Ethics Executive Director Joseph Centorino, who added, “We’re not a criminal justice agency.”
“Sometimes in life it’s not about doing the easy thing; it’s about doing the right thing,” the commissioner said after Tuesday’s hearing.
The question centers on Carollo’s decision to call Police Chief Manuel Orosa, who called the traffic cop’s commander, who in turn called the officer.
On Tuesday, Carollo was represented by prominent attorney Ben Kuehne. The police chief and the officer who wrote the warning ticket were dragged to the witness stand under oath. And the usually sparsely filled ethics conference room was packed with tweeting reporters, camera crews and other observers.
A hearing could have been avoided had Carollo never picked up his cellphone to call the chief, or if he had negotiated a relatively light reprimand from the ethics board. A traffic citation would only have cost Carollo $179 — though in fairness, Police Officer John Blackerby on Tuesday stuck by his decision to issue the commissioner only a warning.
He did offer this tidbit when asked if his decision was swayed after he was contacted by his commander: “It had to. To say no would be disingenuous.”
Kuehne called the allegations against his client “outrageous.”
Murawski said Carollo “used his access to the chief of police.”
Only Orosa and Blackerby testified Tuesday. Blackerby denied knowing anything about a conspiracy proposed by Kuehne in which police targeted Carollo because they held him responsible for benefit cuts that helped the city balance a $40 million budget shortfall last year. Orosa said Carollo never asked him for a favor. Then the chief couldn’t help but take a shot at local blogger Al Crespo, who filed the ethics complaint a year ago.
“He constantly writes gibberish about me. He’ll file a complaint on his mom if he could,” said the chief.
Crespo, seated in the audience, shot back, calling the chief “a scumbag.”
A year after the traffic dustup, the two-hours-plus of testimony still hadn’t resolved the issue: When an ethics commission member had to leave the hearing, the whole thing was put off — date to be determined.
Commissioners asked Carollo and Murawski to come back to them with a proposed date to fight another day.