The owner of the Little Havana nightclub Ball & Chain is suing Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo over his obsessive effort to find code violations at the club and affiliated properties since he returned to public office in November 2017.
Thursday morning, Bill Fuller and his business partner Martin Pinilla filed suit in federal court alleging Carollo has violated their right to free speech by siccing code enforcement on their Calle Ocho businesses in retaliation for the partners’ support for Alfonso “Alfie” Leon, Carollo’s political opponent in last year’s election.
Fuller is part-owner of Ball & Chain, and he partners with Pinilla on other businesses in Little Havana. They are suing for at least $2.5 million in damages stemming from the violations, including the shutdown of a partially built outdoor market made of shipping containers.
Since the election, Carollo has embarked on late-night stakeouts to find violations related to the club’s valet parking operation, blasted Fuller on Spanish-language radio with accusations of leftist ties and issued thinly-veiled barbs against Ball & Chain and affiliated businesses during public meetings. In recent days, Carollo has been filmed standing outside the club and telling staffers that cars were illegally parked on a nearby lot used by club employees, an interaction first reported by blogger Al Crespo.
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The lawsuit flips some of Carollo’s rhetoric by arguing that Fuller and Pinilla are facing the kind of political bullying that occurs in authoritarian regimes.
“Unchecked retaliation and political payback on this scale would lead the United States down the path of Cuba and Venezuela today,” the lawsuit states. “Carollo’s prolonged and multifaceted retaliation has been in blatant violation of the City of Miami Charter’s prohibition on Commissioners providing direct orders to City employees to wrongfully use City resources for their own political means.”
Carollo’s behavior has raised questions of whether he broke city law by giving direct orders to city staffers. As a commissioner with no administrative authority over municipal employees, Carollo is required to go to City Manager Emilio Gonzalez with any complaints or issues.
The commissioner has denied instructing city employees to target Ball & Chain and related properties, or that he has acted in retaliation for the partners’ support of his election opponent, but he has defended his late-night excursions to Calle Ocho to find violations.
Fuller had filed an ethics complaint against Carollo earlier this year, which he later withdrew, stating the complaint was too narrow and he was considering legal options. The closeout report from an inquiry by county ethics investigators featured multiple former city employees saying Carollo pressured them to make sure code enforcement was targeting Fuller-owned businesses.
The lawsuit cites these sworn statements. Among them was Steve Miró, a former Carollo aide who said Carollo pressured him to lie to ethics investigators about the code issues. Miró told investigators Carollo wanted him to say there were anonymous code complaints even though there were none.
Carollo has denied those claims.
In response to the lawsuit, Carollo taunted Fuller by saying now that the issue will go to court, public records will emerge showing Fuller has flouted code requirements for years.
“This is not about selective enforcement,” he told the Miami Herald. “This is about selective protection.”
At a press conference Thursday announcing the lawsuit in one of their Calle Ocho buildings, Futurama, Fuller and Pinilla described Carollo’s behavior as bitter political payback for an instance during the 2017 election when they allowed Leon to hold a campaign event on one of their properties.
Fuller, whom Carollo has accused of trying to “de-Latinize” the neighborhood, spoke about his Cuban heritage and investment in the area as a tribute to Hispanic culture. He accused Carollo of being behind the wave of code violations that have hit his properties in what he believes is selective enforcement.
“Even the code enforcement officers, they come here and say, ‘We’re really sorry, we got a complaint. We shouldn’t be here.’ ” Fuller told reporters.
Fuller told reporters that when it comes to code citations, he follows the city’s process. His attorney Jeff Gutchess said it didn’t matter if there were legitimate code violations because the intention was political retaliation.
“As long as what’s motivating him to seek out the code violations is free speech, he is still liable,” Gutchess said.
At Carollo’s urging, the city has stepped up code enforcement in Little Havana and cited other businesses not affiliated with Ball & Chain as well as slumlords for letting residential properties fall into disrepair.
City Attorney Victoria Mendez said the city will likely represent Carollo because the lawsuit focuses on his actions as a commissioner. Taxpayers would foot the bill.
Carollo was at Miami City Hall for Thursday’s City Commission meeting. During the morning portion of the meeting, a man tried to serve Carollo the lawsuit as he sat on the dais.
Mendez quickly told the man to leave.
“Who are you? A process server? Get out. You can’t do that here,” she snapped. “You can wait outside. You can’t do that here. Get out.”
Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon raised his arms and quipped: “The things we see in Miami.”
Read the 48-page lawsuit below: