Little Havana - Flagami

A feud between a commissioner and a nightclub. At stake: the heart of Little Havana

Music and dancing roars from Ball & Chain

People have fun dancing at Ball & Chain in Little Havana on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.
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People have fun dancing at Ball & Chain in Little Havana on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.

Two men, each powerful in his own way, are pulling Little Havana in opposite directions.

On one side, a wealthy Little Havana nightclub owner and developer, who has brought tourism and youth to neglected buildings in this historic part of Miami. On the other, a zealous city commissioner, acting on what he feels is a mandate from the neighborhood’s older residents to preserve a way of life.

The bitter fight between City Commissioner Joe Carollo, a Cuban immigrant and former Miami mayor who was re-elected in November after 16 years away from public office, and Bill Fuller, co-owner of Ball and Chain who has Cuban roots, has all the ingredients of a typical Miami City Hall drama — corruption claims, allegations of political retaliation and bizarre late-night stakeouts.

With characteristic bluster and his signature tendency to see conspiracy, Carollo has called Fuller the “Godfather of Little Havana” — a moneyed businessman who wants to “de-Latinize” the neighborhood to turn it into another Wynwood. Upon returning to City Hall, Carollo made it a priority to investigate code violations on Fuller properties. Turning to a dog-eared page from his political playbook, Carollo went on Spanish-language radio to raise the specter of leftist activity, linking Fuller and one of his tenants to money from a high-ranking Venezuelan official.

Fuller is widely considered the key player in Calle Ocho’s gradual transformation into a hip destination with a bustling nightlife in recent years, an evolution some say benefits the surrounding neighborhood. His company Barlington Group owns more than 20 properties on Calle Ocho. Fuller and his partners are credited with tastefully reviving the 1930s nightclub Ball and Chain and bringing in trendy food and beverage options such as craft beer, oysters and doughnuts. But he’s succeeded in part by violating city codes regulating parking and noise.

Their feud provides a window into a bigger battle over the future of one of Miami’s most famous neighborhoods: Two big egos antagonizing each other against a backdrop of a fast-gentrifying neighborhood where some small business owners are feeling the squeeze from increasing rents. The question at the center of of their fight? What Little Havana should be.

Little Havana, once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, was a landing point for Cuban exiles fleeing the island’s Communist takeover in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Cuban diaspora spread out over the next several decades, and now the neighborhood is populated by a diverse array of Hispanics from across Central and South America. Little Havana has not aged well in some respects. Some of its buildings are in poor condition, and the area is home to some of the poorest tenants in Miami.

So when Fuller brings new life to Calle Ocho, some see him as stabilizing a tired district, injecting energy into its economy, while others see it as opening a door to gentrification and a loss of its traditional culture. Should the area be a haven for redevelopment, an incubator for entrepreneurs with transformative ideas? Or should it be a quieter, calmer home for longstanding business owners and residents who want to defend their neighborhood against unfettered gentrification?

Ball & Chain is a nightclub and live music venue on Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Gastón de Cárdenas Miami Herald file

One could question if Miami’s existing laws are equipped to handle the redevelopment coming at a fast clip from entrepreneurs hatching outside-the-box ideas. Fuller, for example, was dogged by permitting issues on a farmers market concept in an alley off Calle Ocho, where he has cut up shipping containers into kiosks intended to house small merchants, structures not easily defined under Miami’s regulations. Even though permits were later granted, Carollo saw a different problem when he looked down that alley. He saw a prime example of Fuller acting first and seeking proper permits later.

The “container kiosks” issue reemerged in recent days when the city requested an emergency injunction against Fuller over the shipping containers, arguing that while they may be permitted, they are not “securely anchored as required.” The city requested an emergency hearing for Thursday.

Carollo told the Miami Herald he had discussed several code issues with City Attorney Victoria Mendez, including the containers, but declined to comment further. On Thursday morning in Miami-Dade civil court, a judge denied the injunction.

The two men most poised to shape Little Havana’s future seem a universe away from being able to have a dispassionate conversation on the matter. For now, there’s a complicated telenovela playing out in public documents, an ethics investigation and the press.

The conflict is spelled out in a report by county ethics investigators, who started an inquiry after Fuller filed — and later withdrew — a complaint accusing Carollo of pushing the city’s code enforcement department to unfairly target properties Fuller owns. While the report makes no conclusions, the evidence investigators gathered makes clear that some of Carollo’s accusations are true. So are some of Fuller’s complaints.

Carollo identified code violations on Fuller-owned properties and pointed out Ball and Chain’s valets were parking cars in unsanctioned lots. Fuller called out Carollo for staking out these in the middle of the night and barging into Union Beer Store with police to shut down an unpermitted party. A former code compliance director told ethics investigators that although he wasn’t explicitly instructed, he felt Carollo was asking him to selectively target, and it was suggested to him by another supervisor that his career could suffer if Fuller properties weren’t targeted.

Bill Fuller, co-owner of Ball & Chain, in the the historic Calle Ocho establishment that he restored. CARL JUSTE

In the 38-page report, as reported by the Miami New Times on Tuesday, Carollo’s former aide accuses the commissioner of pressuring him to lie to ethics investigators, a claim Carollo denies. That aide, Steven Miró, was fired by Carollo amid sexual harassment allegations against him, though Miró claims he was retaliated against because he was a whistleblower in a separate criminal investigation into whether Carollo used public money to hold political campaign events benefiting an ally running for a County Commission seat. Miró has a pending grievance before a city labor board challenging his dismissal.

A Herald review of a sampling of code enforcement records obtained through a public records request shows Fuller’s properties have been been hit with more violations since Carollo returned to public office. For example, Sidebar, a bar with live music owned by Fuller and other business partners, was cited for noise violations three times in April and May of this year. No one lives next to Sidebar, which is situated between Interstate 95 and a couple of soccer fields.

Fuller insists he’s being singled out.

“We understand the right of any city commissioner to undertake any investigation under the parameters of the law, and within their jurisdiction,” he told the Herald. “However, time and time again, Commissioner Carollo has targeted Barlington Group, and our tenants and partners in an unfair manner that goes beyond his authority.”

But the onslaught of code violation citations in Little Havana is not exclusive to Fuller properties. The commissioner has targeted slumlords on at least three occasions since his election, including owners of insect-infested apartment buildings and units where children were being bitten by rats. Most were publicized in Spanish-language media, in newspapers and on television.

One Calle Ocho restaurant favored by Carollo — El Pub, the location of Carollo’s election night party in November — was fined $775 for littering and permitting issues. Later, inspectors returned to cite the establishment for operating sidewalk cafe tables without permits.

Carollo happily claims responsibility for an increase in citations. He says he’s wanted code enforcement to crack down across the district.

“I’ll go after anybody,” Carollo said Tuesday.

In interviews with ethics investigators and the Miami Herald, Carollo adamantly denied wrongdoing, proudly admitted to confronting valet attendants after hours and insisted he is defending Latin-American small business owners who play by the rules.

Yet it’s clear Carollo has paid special attention to Fuller. The businessman said Carollo’s efforts have ranged from trying to shut down Fuller’s company Christmas party last year to pushing city administrators to revoke the permit for Fuller’s valet parking operator.

But the ethics inquiry ended when Fuller withdrew his complaint in mid-August. Fuller’s attorney said he requested the withdrawal because the complaint was “too narrowly drafted,” and with additional evidence, Fuller might pursue a criminal complaint.

commission5 meeting lnew cmg
Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo at the city commission meeting Aug. 14, 2018. C.M. GUERRERO

Fuller called Carollo’s barbs about a leftist conspiracy and an effort to “de-Latinize” Little Havana defamatory and cast himself as the victim in a campaign to hurt his business, possibly retribution after Carollo’s political opponent held a rally on a Fuller property during last year’s City Commission race. Fuller said he once sought to have a good relationship with Carollo — he contributed to Carollo’s campaign last year, as well as others — but any chance of that soured when he began to think Carollo was out to get him.

“Contrary to Commissioner Carollo’s allegations, as a son of a Cuban mother and a Cuban father from an American family, I am proud to be Cuban and Latino, to be raising my children with Cuban values and to be championing the preservation of Cuban history in Miami,” Fuller said.

Carollo continued his verbal crusade against Fuller this week, simultaneously focusing his scrutiny and ire on Fuller but insisting he is not targeting him. Carollo believes he’s simply doing his job as a proactive commissioner with a code compliance problem in his district.

“This is about a street hoodlum who thinks that he’s above the law,” Carollo said.

He says Fuller and others who perceive him as a heavy-handed politician throwing his weight around to pursue a political foe are wrong.

The drama’s plot points are highlighted in the ethics report, summaries of more than a dozen interviews with Fuller, Carollo, city staffers and Calle Ocho business owners. The interviews paint a portrait of Carollo as a code compliance stickler obsessed with cleaning up his district, though one former city official said he felt pressured to target Fuller properties and others suggested it was odd to be paying so much attention to Calle Ocho businesses.

Carollo said the ethics report is full of lies and exaggerations cooked up to discredit him.

“They make it sound like an elected official has to have their hands tied behind their back, like they can’t do anything,” Carollo said. “This is just not the way it is.”

Former code compliance director Orlando Diez told the investigators he would receive calls from former assistant city manager Alberto Parjus complaining about the number of code complaints coming from Carollo’s office and from Mary Lugo, an executive board member with the city’s general employees union and a Carollo supporter.

“They’re driving me crazy,” Parjus said to Diez.

Ball & Chain in Miami. el Nuevo Herald file photo

Lugo appears in many accounts given by officials who spoke to investigators, including the night of Fuller’s holiday party in December 2017. The party was held in the Tower Hotel on Southwest Seventh Street, which is unoccupied because it is being rehabilitated. The project is nearing completion and is expected to finish later this year. Diez said on the night of the party — coincidentally the same night as the city’s holiday party — he received multiple calls and text messages from Lugo complaining that the Tower Hotel event did not have proper permits for a crowd of over 50 people. Diez and a code inspector later saw there were only about 10-15 people at the party.

Carollo denied he told Lugo to sic code inspectors on the party, but he said he did contact an el Nuevo Herald reporter that night to ask her to witness the party because the building was unsafe for occupation. The reporter, Brenda Medina, said on Tuesday she went on a ride-along with Carollo for a separate code enforcement-related story that did not pan out, and she did not witness Carollo trying to shut down the party, interacting with valets or flashing his badge to anyone.

Speaking to investigators, the husband-and-wife owners of Union Beer Store, a wrestling-themed craft beer bar, recounted the night of their one-year anniversary In February, when a small army of police and code enforcement officers, led by Carollo, showed up to shut down an outdoor party in the lot behind the bar. The bar didn’t have the necessary special events permit, so officers stopped the outdoor party while the bar remained open. Owners David and Cecilia Rodriguez said a code enforcement and police officer stood by the front door of the bar for another two hours that night.

The object of one of Carollo’s sharpest attacks, Maria Vivas-Mendoza, sells sweets at Guayaba Y Chocolate, a business she runs out of a space she rents from Fuller on Calle Ocho. She told investigators she feels “quite scared now” after Carollo went on Spanish-language Radio Caracol and alleged that her common-law stepfather, a high-ranking Venezuelan official, was behind a leftist conspiracy to buy up property in Little Havana. She said she’s not receiving financial support from her stepfather.

Carollo doubled down on his accusation when he spoke to investigators, even strangely suggesting political meaning to the shop’s name — he said the owners picked guava because it’s red, symbolizing communism, while the black chocolate represents left-wing politics. Carollo later told the Herald this was a joke, adding that he believes some of Fuller’s people are trying to intimidate him when he walks down Calle Ocho by following him and taking pictures of him.

The commissioner’s former aide, Miró, told investigators Carollo pressured him to lie by telling ethics representatives that the code enforcement on Fuller’s properties was based on anonymous complaints that did not exist. On Tuesday, Carollo responded.

“Steve Miró is a liar,” he said.

A manager for the valet parking company contracted by Ball and Chain, Alain Martinez, described confronting Carollo on one of his late-night stakeouts where the commissioner allegedly said, “I am here because I can be here. I am conducting an investigation ... you’re operating illegally ... I am the law and I can do it.”

Carollo denied making the declaration.

In the ethics commission interviews, a staffer from the Miami Parking Authority, Humberto Escandón, accepted responsibility for the lack of oversight of Ball and Chain’s valet parking operation, which Fuller in his complaint said is a crucial part of his business. It turned out the valets were parking cars in unsanctioned lots, confirming Carollo’s claims.

On Tuesday, Fuller created some distance from SH Valet, the valet company he contracts with, saying he requires any third-party vendor to adhere to any and all municipal laws.

“Any arrangement between SH Valet and the city of Miami regarding the alleged accusations were done outside of the purview and outside of the knowledge of our organization,” Fuller said. “We take any violation seriously and address it immediately.”

Read the full ethics report below:

el Nuevo Herald staff writer Brenda Medina contributed to this report.