Miami-Dade County

Joe Carollo did actually live in his district, can remain a commissioner, judge rules

Carollo victorious in court and ready to get to work

Judge Thomas Rebull ruled in Joe Carollo’s favor Monday, allowing him to keep his Miami City Commission seat, after a lawsuit brought by Carollo’s political opponent, Alfonso “Alfie” Leon. The suit alleged Carollo did not reside in his West Bricke
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Judge Thomas Rebull ruled in Joe Carollo’s favor Monday, allowing him to keep his Miami City Commission seat, after a lawsuit brought by Carollo’s political opponent, Alfonso “Alfie” Leon. The suit alleged Carollo did not reside in his West Bricke

In the case of Alfonso “Alfie” Leon’s challenge of Joe Carollo’s election to the Miami City Commission, Leon’s scrutiny of Carollo’s lifestyle, power bills and cellphone records were not enough to unseat Carollo months after he was elected.

Judge Thomas Rebull ruled in Carollo’s favor Monday, allowing him to keep his commission seat, after Leon sued Carollo alleging Carollo did not reside in his West Brickell apartment for the required amount of time before qualifying for the November 2017 ballot. In that election, voters chose Carollo over Leon to represent them in District 3.

In essence, the judge completely rebuffed Leon’s assertions. He not only dismissed Leon’s initial complaint, but he gave no weight to the testimony of two of Leon’s expert witnesses and considered Carollo’s witnesses credible.

“The greater weight of the evidence does not warrant me undoing the will of the electorate,” Rebull said.

The gallery in the small courtroom at the Dade County Courthouse was lopsided with Carollo’s supporters, including some members of Miami’s political establishment. Following the judge’s request for no reactions during the hearing, both sides remained silent as Rebull read his ruling.

Once the hearing ended with Carollo victorious, he received hugs and congratulations from a parade of politicos that included Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, former commissioner Marc Sarnoff, attorney and lobbyist C.J. Gimenez (the county mayor’s son) and former state senator Alex Díaz de la Portilla.

“We were very confident that he had no business bringing this lawsuit at all from day one,” Carollo later told reporters, adding that he was happy to move past a distracting court case and wants to get to work now that his election has been upheld.

Leon remained stone-faced as it became clear the judge would rule in Carollo’s favor, and he was quietly consoled by his attorneys afterward.

“While we respect the court’s ruling, we disagree with the conclusions of law and fact, and we are weighing our options,” said J.C. Planas, Leon’s attorney.

Carollo had again triumphed in an election challenge that was taken to court — this time while playing defense. It was the second time Carollo’s status as a city elected official has been determined by the courts. In the 1997 mayoral election, Xavier L. Suarez — father of the city’s current mayor — appeared to win the majority of votes. But Carollo famously used the courts to invalidate the election on the grounds it was tainted by ballot fraud and unseated Xavier Suarez following a court ruling.

Twenty years later, Carollo sought to make his political comeback. He had been out of elected office for 16 years. He ran first in a field of seven candidates on Nov. 7, but was forced into a runoff against Leon when no one won a majority of votes. Then just hours before the Nov. 21 runoff, Leon filed suit challenging Carollo’s residency status. The case went to trial earlier this month.

In this case, Leon accused Carollo of not meeting the requirement that candidates live in the district they seek to represent for at least one year before the deadline to qualify for the ballot, which was Sept 23, 2017. Carollo signed a lease for apartment 504 at Brickell Station Lofts on Sept. 22, 2016, seemingly making the cut by a day.

Leon’s attorneys argued in court that Carollo did not truly establish residency until months later. Each side called expert witnesses who offered conflicting interpretations of the power bills and cellphone records.

Speaking outside on the courthouse steps after Monday’s hearing, Carollo had sharp words for Leon.

“It’s about time Mr. Leon got a job,” he said, renewing his allegations that Leon is funded by Carollo’s political enemies. Leon’s last full-time employment was as an aide for Carollo’s brother, former Miami commissioner Frank Carollo, who was term-limited last year. Leon dropped his law practice to focus on his campaign.

Former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo crashed a press conference Friday called by supporters of his District 3 City Commission opponent, Alfie Leon, outside his Coconut Grove house. He says accusations that he didn't qualify to run in Tuesday's runoff el

Attorney J.C. Planas, left, and Alfie Leon listen as Judge Thomas Rebull issues his ruling upholding the election of Joe Carollo to the District 3 Miami City Commission seat. Leon, the losing candidate, challenged Carollo’s residency in the district. Emily Michot

During two days of testimony, Leon’s attorneys scrutinized Carollo’s low power bills during the first months of his lease and used data from cellphone towers that transmitted calls from Carollo’s phone to argue that Carollo was not near his apartment at night, when he says he was sleeping there. Expert witnesses who analyzed the records and power bills cast doubt that Carollo was living in the apartment.

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Judge Thomas Rebull upheld Joe Carollo’s election to the Miami City Commission. Emily Michot

The lifestyle of Carollo and his wife Marjorie was also called into question. The couple testified they spent long days working and taking care of Carollo’s elderly mother and Marjorie’s autistic son at Carollo’s longtime home on Morris Lane in Coconut Grove, before returning to the Brickell apartment only to sleep there.

“On its face, it is purely unbelievable that the Carollos would leave an autistic young man and a ninety-year-old, frail woman alone in an enormous house with several dogs,” said Planas in a written closing argument submitted to the judge last week.

“By their own candid admission, Brickell Station Lofts was at best a nightly hotel,” Planas wrote.

Carollo’s attorneys provided their own experts to interpret the power bills, including one who testified he’d measured the electrical usage of the appliances in the apartment and concluded that with limited use, the bills could have been low even if the Carollos spent nights there.

“They slept in the apartment and made it their home as of Sept. 22, 2016, continuing to the time of the trial in this case,” Carollo’s attorney, Benedict Kuehne, wrote in his closing argument. Kuehne said the Carollos moved in on that day and continued to takes steps to establish the apartment as their permanent residence over the course of the first few months of the lease. Joe Carollo changed his license and voter registration during that time.

“They put family pictures on the wall, an important tradition to make the apartment their ‘home,’ ” Kuehne wrote.

Carollo’s witnesses, including a friend who helped him move into the apartment, proved more credible to the judge than Leon’s witnesses. The judge also gave considerable weight to the testimony of the Carollos themselves, who said they moved in and slept there to meet the requirements so he could run for the District 3 seat, but they had family commitments that occupied their days at the Morris Lane home.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech