Judge in Carollo trial livid over photo taken in court, threatens defense with prison

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The lawsuit involving Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo was thrown into disarray Wednesday morning when the federal judge overseeing the case briefly threatened to send the commissioner’s attorneys to prison over a photo that was taken inside the courtroom.

Taking pictures inside federal courtrooms is strictly prohibited and U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Smith was livid when one showed up in a filing from Carollo’s attorneys, Ben Kuehne, Mason Pertnoy and Marc Sarnoff.

The picture, which the judge said was included in a sealed document and never shown in court, apparently showed an attorney for the Little Havana businessmen suing Carollo talking to a media member in Smith’s courtroom. Smith did not name them or six other people also shown in the photo, which he said was taken by another attorney, Jesse Stolow, who is part of the defense team and had been attending the proceedings.

“This is one of the most egregious reprehensible disrespectful actions you could make against this court. It requires prison time. We will see how it can be avoided,” Smith said. “I’ve never seen something like this in my life. What happens here sets a precedent.”

Smith vented his concerns early Wednesday morning before jurors were summoned in the trial, which is in its sixth week. Carollo is fighting a federal civil suit by two Little Havana businessmen who claim he “weaponized” city resources and used code enforcement officers and police to try and destroy several of their business ventures. The men, WIlliam “Bill” Fuller and Martin Pinilla, say the commissioner set his sights on them after they threw support behind one of his opponents in a commission race in 2017.

Smith said the photo violated rules designed to protect national security and federal judges, referencing a 2020 case where a disgruntled “anti-feminist” lawyer targeted a female judge in New Jersey in 2020. He wound up killing the judge’s son and wounding her husband before killing himself at the judge’s family home. The photo in question was included in a sealed filing from Carollo’s defense team. The nature of the filing wasn’t immediately clear but Carollo’s attorneys had previously filed a number of mistrial requests, which the judge has denied.

After a 15-minute recess, Smith returned to the bench and told Carollo’s attorneys that he was recommending they take a deal that included not practicing in the federal court in the Southern District of Florida for the next two years. He then recessed the matter for 30 days and said if the court does not reach an agreement with the attorneys, he’d set a hearing date in about 90 days. That allowed Carollo’s attorneys to continue representing him in the ongoing trial.

Before continuing with the trial, Stolow, who’s only been practicing for 13 months but is working with the Carollo defense team , got a brief chance to address Smiith. He said he was “deeply sorry for my actions.”

“I was unaware it was included [in the sealed document] until yesterday,” he told the judge. “Your honor, I’m very sorry and I will never do it again.”

Wednesday’s admonishment of the attorneys was just latest in a series of bizarre events that have marred the lengthy federal trial that began April 10.

The first week, after an historic rainstorm parked over Fort Lauderdale for a day, the court’s electrical system was damaged the trial had to be moved to Miami’s downtown federal courthouse. There, after testifying against Carollo, former Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo was tailed by two cars from the courthouse to a Coral Gables restaurant. Police spoke with the two private investigators who followed Art Acevedo. But it remains unclear why they did so.

The trial moved back to the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse last week after the electricity was repaired, but the elevators remain on the blink and jurors have to walk up to the second floor each day.

After Wednesday’s morning discussion with the attorneys, jurors were called into the courtoom and the trial continued with the defense calling witnesses. First up was Miami Assistant City Attorney Rachel Dooley, who testified that to her knowledge Carollo never ordered anyone in the city to go after Fuller and Pinilla. Her testimony was expected to continue after lunch and be followed by Miami City Manager Art Noriega.

Originally published