May 21, 2019
Carollo’s code gripes spark corruption questions, create rifts in Miami’s government
By Joey Flechas

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo’s intense focus on the city’s code compliance department has the city’s top administrators worried they are being used to target certain businesses for enforcement. Meanwhile, his remarks have caused public corruption investigators to turn their attention to City Hall.

Top administrators are questioning whether they should be sending code inspectors and cops to a list of properties provided by Carollo, who since his election in 2017 has raised concerns over violations at properties owned by Bill Fuller, a co-owner of Ball & Chain, and his business associates.

Among those concerned: Police Chief Jorge Colina, who challenged Carollo’s pointed questions at the Feb. 14 meeting when the commissioner spent hours leading an inquisition into the history of code violations of multiple Little Havana properties. Carollo laid out the basis for his accusations that city staffers are willfully turning a blind eye to code violations. 

Colina reiterated his reservations in an email to City Manager Emilio Gonzalez last week, sent in response to a request from City Attorney Victoria Mendez for new inspections of several properties discussed at the commission meeting. Colina said police coordinate checks of bars based on established criteria, not at the direction of an elected official. Elected officials are not supposed to give direct orders to municipal employees under city laws that are meant to protect public servants from political interference.

“The concern is that this request, through the city attorney, may amount to an unsanctioned and unlawful exercise of powers beyond the limits of his legislative power as a city commissioner to intentionally cause harm to a business owner,” Colina wrote. “Furthermore this is selective enforcement against the business owner’s properties using city ordinance. This may be deemed an indirect usurpation of the administration’s powers to interfere with the operations and procedures of various departments, including the Miami Police Department.”

Carollo, taken aback by the chief’s comments, told the Miami Herald he was “amazed about any pushback to a request to look at properties with code issues.

“The police chief acted in the most unprofessional manner of any police chief in modern times,” Carollo said.

The commissioner was particularly incensed because the direction to follow up on the list of properties came from multiple commissioners. On Feb. 14, Commissioner Keon Hardemon made the motion that led to the city attorney’s request, acknowledging that the request included multiple properties and asking the city to file an injunction to shut down any properties issues that had “life safety” issues.

Carollo’s allegations have also piqued the interest of Miami-Dade’s top corruption prosecutor, according to emails obtained by the Miami Herald. Tim VanderGiesen, a veteran assistant state attorney who heads the public corruption unit, told administrators that he watched the Feb. 14 discussion on code compliance and requested records related to that discussion, including a copy of Carollo’s presentation. VanderGiesen also requested an email that Carollo’s chief of staff, Richard Blom, sent the day before the meeting, asking the administration to have certain city staffers present for the code discussion.

The focus of the state attorney’s interest is unclear.

“We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation,” said Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

But the inquiry may have to do with a statement Carollo made in the middle of the lengthy Feb. 14 hearing. At one point, Carollo said a young couple he knew who wanted to open a business in Wynwood were having trouble navigating the city’s permitting process. He said they had to hire an expeditor, someone who is paid to run paperwork around the multiple city departments, and had to give the expeditor extra money to pay off city inspectors.

“They not only had to pay the expeditor, but they had to pay money to the expeditor so he could bribe some of our inspectors, and get that done quickly,” Carollo said that night. “Otherwise, they weren’t going to open.”

When asked if he’d spoken to authorities about the bribery comments, Carollo declined to comment. He said he does not know the identity of the inspectors who allegedly took bribes, and he declined to name the business owners, saying only that he believed they were honest people in a tough spot.

“I have no reason to doubt them,” he said.