Miami City Commissioner and former Mayor Joe Carollo. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

Headline-generating Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo has been sued by two Little Havana business owners for allegedly abridging their right to free speech and free association.

A First Amendment complaint was filed against Carollo, former Miami mayor and a long-term fixture on the city’s political scene, Thursday by William O. Fuller and Martin Pinilla II. The suit alleges Carollo has continually harassed Fuller, Pinilla and others affiliated with their urban development company the Barlington Group.

“Carollo’s actions, designed to destroy Plaintiffs’ businesses and reputations, is pure political payback—targeting Plaintiffs simply because they dared to support Carollo’s opponent in a run-off election, and because they filed an ethics complaint against Carollo,” the suit states.

Read the First Amendment complaint against Carollo: 

According to Jeff Gutchess, a founding partner with Wynwood-based boutique firm AXS Law Group, the political payback described in the complaint began after his clients publicly threw their support behind Alfonso “Alfie” Leon during his 2017 bid for city commissioner against Carollo.

Jeff Gutchess of AXS Law in Wynwood. Courtesy photo

Gutchess mentioned that Fuller and Pinilla — who are well-known for revitalizing several Little Havana properties — had been warned in advance by their peers not to go against Carollo in such a visible fashion. He added that “a lot of people supported Leon secretly … because they didn’t want retribution.”


Lurking in Alleyways

Carollo’s campaign against Fuller and Pinilla has included levying noise complaints against Ball & Chain in addition to knocking on the doors of nearby residents and inquiring if they were bothered by the sound of the nightclub, according to the suit. Fuller is one of the co-owners of Ball & Chain.

“These are not mere allegations. They are confirmed by Carollo’s own aid, city of Miami employees, a Miami-Dade Ethics Commission investigative report, and even by another commissioner of the city of Miami,” according to the complaint. “There are also reams of text messages, emails, photographs and even live video showing Carollo in action lurking around plaintiffs’ properties in alleyways and behind trees in the middle of the night on numerous occasions. In fact, Carollo has himself stated that he is the ‘new Sheriff in town,’ and that he is the law.’ ”

Bill Fuller, left, and Martin Pinilla ll, both managing partners of the Barlington Group. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

Gutchess said he became involved with the case in late September once Carollo resumed targeting Fuller and Pinilla following a months-long lull because of an investigative report concerning the commissioner’s behavior towards the business partners. After analyzing the underlying facts, he realized the situation “fit perfectly” into a First Amendment complaint.

“Carollo’s own chief of staff [Steve Miró] admitted that it was retaliation for the political support,” Gutchess claimed. ”I said, ‘This is it. This is the perfect case for [a] freedom of speech retaliation claim.”

Gutchess noted that Carollo used the same legal argument in his suit against the city of Doral after its city council fired him in 2014.

“His claim was dismissed, went up to the Eleventh Circuit, and he won,” Gutchess said. “I said to Bill, ‘We’re going to take this own theory that he used in the Eleventh Circuit and we’re going to use it against him.’ ”

Gutchess believes the implications of this case stretch beyond just his clients’ dispute.

“The right to freedom of speech … really is one of the fundamental rights on which this country is based,” he said. “We think this is not only an important case for Bill and Martin, but for the city and country as a whole.”

Carollo did not return requests for comment by deadline.

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