MIAMI – Miami taxpayers have already spent nearly $2 million on City Commissioner Joe Carollo’s legal defense in a lengthy civil trial that resulted in a jury verdict against him on Thursday.
A jury found that Carollo violated the First Amendment rights of Little Havana businessmen Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla, who claim that Carollo had a personal vendetta against them because they supported his political opponent in 2017. Carollo has been ordered to pay more than $60 million in damages.
They allege that he used his position in city government to harass them and destroy their reputations.
A legal expert said taxpayers funded Carollo’s defense because of a Florida Supreme Court ruling protecting elected officials.
“The defense put forward by the commissioner is that he was doing these actions within the course of his duties as a city commissioner and therefore he’s covered and protected by his status as a public official,” said legal analyst David Weinstein, who’s not involved with the case.
Weinstein said the defense, therefore, argues that his legal fees should be covered by the city.
“Florida courts have long recognized that public officials are entitled to legal representation at public expense to *917 defend themselves against litigation arising from the performance of their official duties while serving a public purpose. E.g., Miller v. Carbonelli, 80 So. 2d 909 (Fla. 1955); Williams v. City of Miami, 42 So. 2d 582 (Fla. 1949); Peck v. Spencer, 26 Fla. 23, 7 So. 642 (1890); Lomelo v. City of Sunrise, 423 So. 2d 974 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982), review dismissed, 431 So. 2d 988 (Fla. 1983); Ellison v. Reid, 397 So. 2d 352 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981). The purpose of this common law rule is to avoid the chilling effect that a denial of representation might have on public officials in performing their duties properly and diligently. Nuzum v. Valdes, 407 So. 2d 277 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981). This entitlement to attorney’s fees arises independent of statute, ordinance, or charter. Lomelo, 423 So. 2d at 976. For public officials to be entitled to representation at public expense, the litigation must (1) arise out of or in connection with the performance of their official duties and (2) serve a public purpose. Chavez v. City of Tampa, 560 So. 2d 1214 (Fla. 2d DCA 1990). See Lomelo; Nuzum; Markham v. Department of Revenue, 298 So. 2d 210 (Fla. 1st DCA 1974), cert. denied, 309 So. 2d 547 (Fla. 1975).”
“It’s not over.” In today’s #DigitalDeepDive legal analyst @DavidSWeinstein answers some of your questions about a jury finding Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo liable—who is on the hook for the $63M+ in total damages? If he appeals, will the public keep funding his legal defense? pic.twitter.com/WOeyI4afYg— Christina Boomer Vazquez, M.S. (@CBoomerVazquez) June 1, 2023
So are taxpayers or the commissioner on the hook for the multi-million dollars in damages?
“The commissioner is on the hook,” said Weinstein. “Remember, the city is agreeing to pay for his attorney’s fees, but that doesn’t include damages. However, if there is an insurance policy in place, then perhaps it won’t come directly out of the commissioner’s pocket.”
Weinstein cautioned that it will be a long way off until any money is paid out.
“At this point, and until the verdict sticks, the city will continue to fund (Carollo’s) legal defense under the statutes and case law in Florida,” said Weinstein.
All this is due to the fact that there will still be more legal wrangling in this case.
“This is a verdict that is going to be appealed all the way up to the court of appeals and potentially to (Florida’s) Supreme Court. Until the verdict is affirmed, he still, in his opinion, is acting within the scope of his duties,” Weinstein said.
This means that the fees will continue to be covered by the city and therefore, taxpayers’ dollars.
“Once the verdict is affirmed that may change things,” Weinstein said.
The $1.9 million in legal fees already incurred does not include charges since the trial started, so taxpayers may be in this for the long haul.