Government, News, Politics

The Billy Corben Show

Shortly after 12:00 noon on a Thursday in January, local activist and filmmaker Billy Corben, standing alone at the speaker’s podium at Miami City Hall, implored the five-member City Commission to remove its polarizing city attorney, Victoria Mendez, from her post. 

Dressed in black, Corben cited a lawsuit alleging that Mendez and her husband engaged in a house flipping scheme that victimized an elderly homeowner. The pending vote to end her 20-year tenure as the city’s chief legal officer, he continued – finger wagging – was a “litmus test for the Miami Mafia.” 

As Mendez watched from across the room, Corben’s voice picked up, in both volume and cadence as he recited the string of scandals and allegations of abuse plaguing City Hall.

“Please end the humiliating tenure of mob lawyer Vicky Mendez, the enabler and co-conspirator in much of this misconduct that has embarrassed the city all over the world for so many years,” he said. 

As Corben strode back to his seat, Mendez, silent until then, struck back. “The reason why people like you get to bully me every day and I don’t lose any sleep over you is because you are a vile little man,” she said. 

When Corben returned to City Hall later that month, he embraced Mendez’ epithet as a badge of honor. Standing at the podium, facing five commissioners and an online audience of many thousands more, Corben wore a custom black t-shirt imprinted with large red, white, and blue letters announcing his arrival: “Vile. Little. Man.”

The Coconut Grove Spotlight: Miami documentary filmmaker and activist Billy Corben who was also a child actor wears a Vile. Little. Man. T-shirt outside the long shattered Coconut Grove Playhouse. (Patrick Farrell for the Spotlight.)

The 46-year-old filmmaker, whose real name is William Cohen, gained fame directing and producing documentaries that show how power corrupts nearly every facet of life, from drug trafficking to college football to religion. But in recent years, he has found a second calling as a City Hall provocateur. 

“The only thing transparent in Miami is corruption,” Corben told the Spotlight. “I was just tired of it. I had time on my hands. I had an inbox full of tips about injustices. I decided I am going to do this.”

When he’s not showing up at public meetings to harangue politicians, Corben lights them up on social media and a nascent podcast called #BecauseMiami that he launched last year as a standalone program on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stu Gotz. 

“In Miami, he is the head of the spear that is piercing City Hall,” South Miami-based political consultant Keith Donner told the Spotlight. “Elected officials definitely follow him, and people do not want to get on the guy’s radar.” 

Corben’s Impact at City Hall

In last year’s election for Miami’s District 1 and 2 commission seats, Corben pushed voters to boot incumbents Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Sabina Covo, both of whom lost runoffs to Miguel Gabela and Damian Pardo, respectively. 

Gabela and Pardo ran on a platform of cleaning up Miami city government, including leading the charge to oust Mendez from the city’s top legal post. In April, Corben got the last laugh when Gabela and Pardo prevailed in a 4-to-1 vote to remove Mendez as city attorney. 

Commissioner Joe Carollo, another Corben target, was the lone no vote. Mendez declined comment and Carollo did not respond to four voice messages. 

In his District 2 race, Corben “absolutely” swayed voters, Pardo told the Spotlight.

An episode of Corben’s podcast also may have influenced an ongoing public corruption case, Pardo said. The Broward State Attorney’s office is examining whether Covo promised Eddy Leal, a District 2 candidate who placed third in the first round of voting, a job in her district office in exchange for his endorsement in the runoff. 

The episode, which aired shortly before the runoff, featured James Torres, another candidate who placed fourth. During the show, Torres alleged that Covo offered Leal a job as a “legislative aide” with a six-figure salary. Covo and Leal have denied striking a deal of any sort.

“There are stories that Billy broke that were key in having people understand what was at stake in the race,” Pardo said. “That is the reality of influencers, social media and the way we process information today.” 

Pardo said he doesn’t always agree with Corben. “But,” he added, “he is absolutely influential.”

The one-hour show, which airs on Thursdays and nabs 3,000 to 12,000 views on Youtube, is a collaboration with Dan Le Batard, the former Miami Herald sports columnist and ESPN personality who’s launched an audio media company that broadcasts on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming platforms. 

Billy Corben who was also a child actor tapes his #BecauseMIAMI podcast at the studios of the Dan Le Batard with Stugotz show in the Elser Hotel in Downtown Miami. (Patrick Farrell for the Spotlight.)

Corben’s personality and politics also resonate with his 200,000-plus followers on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram. For instance, clips of his two showdowns with Mendez garnered 47,000 views, more than 400 likes and nearly 50 reposts. 

But can Corben become something bigger than a gadfly with a loud digital pulpit? Can he use his influence to help force real reforms at Miami City Hall? 

These are questions Corben is still trying to figure out. “Originally, I thought #BecauseMiami would turn into some local journalism effort,” Corben said. But, he added, “I haven’t figured out how to organize it or monetize it.” 

From Acting to Filmmaking to Fighting City Hall

Born in 1978 in Fort Myers, Corben and his family moved two years later to North Miami Beach where he met his future business partners and fellow film producers, Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin. During his early years, Corben’s favorite after-school activity was acting, he said. 

“At the time, Miami was hot for modeling and commercials,” Corben said. “I had auditions after school almost every single day.”

His acting credits include episodes of TV shows like “Night Court” and “Empty Nest,” as well as roles in the 1989 film “Parenthood” and the 1993 movie “Stepmonster.”

While shooting “Parenthood,” Corben met one of his filmmaking idols, Ron Howard, who directed the movie. “He was one of my inspirations to make movies,” Corben said.

In high school, he was elected senior class president after earning a reputation for representing other students who got in trouble with the principal, Corben said. “I always had trouble with authority and I would be in the principal’s office quite regularly to advocate for various positions on behalf of the student body. I would read the student bill of rights in the school handbook and go to the school board office if it escalated to that.”

Corben abandoned acting while still in high school, but didn’t give up on filmmaking. After graduating from New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami, he attended the University of Miami, where he majored in political science, screenwriting and theater. 

At the time, Corben and his friends were also consuming a steady diet of Carl Hiaasen’s metro columns in the Miami Herald, investigative articles in the Miami New Times and the sardonic humor of late radio host Neil Rogers.

Corben, Spellman and Cypkin’s first feature documentary reflected those influences. “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent” was a visceral examination into the alleged rape of an exotic dancer at a University of Florida fraternity house. 

Billy Corben fields phone calls at Coral Bagel restaurant in Coconut Grove. (Patrick Farrell for the Spotlight.)

The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, showed videotape footage of the alleged assault and contains a scene of Corben confronting then-Alachua County State Attorney Rod Smith in an attempt to get the top prosecutor to comment on his handling of the case. “We staked out Smith’s office, Mike Wallace-style,” Spellman said. 

After “Raw Deal” was released, the trio formed Miami Beach-based production company Rakontur and set out to make their next documentary, which would become the seminal hit “Cocaine Cowboys.” 

The 2006 film spawned sequels including a 2022 six-part Netflix series about Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon, a pair of Miami drug lords who ruled the Magic City in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The documentary scored an Edward R. Murrow Excellence in Video award. 

Rakontur has also produced a bevy of other award-winning documentaries, including one about the University of Miami football program and a 2022 Hulu release about the scandal that brought down evangelical rightwing leader Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becki. 

Now, Corben is filling a void for in-your-face muckraking journalism, Spellman said. 

“Billy, in a comedic and entertaining way, is stepping in to present local issues that people need to pay attention to,” Spellman said. “And he’s doing so in a more interactive, conversational way that shines a spotlight on people and issues that would normally fly under the radar and things people prefer to stay in the darkness.”

In recent days, Corben shook up the Miami-Dade Democratic Party by launching an insurgent bid against the election of Florida Sen. Shevrin Jones as the party’s chair. Along the way, Corben accused party leaders of being insensitive to their Jewish constituents by scheduling the election on Shabbat during Passover week.

Although #BecauseMiami and the activism that fuels it is Corben’s project, Spellman said he and Cypkin support and help out their Rakontur mate.

 “Obviously, David and I are taking a backseat role,” he said. “What Billy has done with Instagram and X, the podcast and his parody songs is wonderful, particularly in an age when local journalism is in decline and people are finding alternative sources of news.” 

Accusations of being a Paid Shill

Targeting public officials has put a bullseye on Corben. He’s faced a relentless barrage of accusations that he’s secretly getting paid by enemies of the politicians and bureaucrats he has raked over the coals. He’s also fallen victim to not-so-subtle anti-semitic dog whistles. 

Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo, who represents a portion of Coconut Grove, has repeatedly accused Corben of being a hired gun for William Fuller and Martin Pinilla, a pair of developers with extensive real estate holdings in Little Havana. The duo also own Ball & Chain, a popular live music venue that city of Miami code enforcers and cops targeted for alleged building violations.  

Last year, Fuller and Pinilla won a $63.5 million verdict against Carollo after a federal jury found the commissioner had violated their first amendment rights by orchestrating a city code enforcement and police harassment campaign. Fuller and Pinilla’s alleged sin? They supported Carollo’s political opponent in 2017. 

“The only reason you’re here is because you’re a paid gun for these characters,” Carollo snarled at Corben during a City Commission meeting last year. “You know who they are. Mr. Corben has been paid by those bar owners to defame me.”

More recently, Corben showed up at a court hearing in the case. Upon seeing Corben, Carollo lost it. “That idiot there,” Carollo said. “That court jester. He sat there getting their cash so he can do all their work.” 

Billy Corben prepares for an episode of his #BecauseMIAMI podcast at Coral Bagel restaurant in Coconut Grove. (Patrick Farrell for the Spotlight.)

In court depositions, Fuller and Pinilla have vehemently denied having Corben on their payroll. 

Others who have insinuated Corben is on the take include Mendez, Miami City Manager Art Noriega and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.  Corben regularly calls Suarez “postalita,” derogatory Cuban slang for someone who is a poser. 

“They are so corrupt that they can’t believe people criticize them because it is the right thing,” says Corben.

Suarez did not respond to voice messages seeking comment.

In October of last year, Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago took issue with Corben calling out corruption in the City Beautiful. When Lago addressed Corben by his given last name: “Mr. Cohen,” Corben shot back: “Why don’t you just say Jew?”

A Voice Miami Needs

Corben makes local oligarchies and their cronies cringe because he doesn’t hold back in exposing the unethical ethos that permeates Miami-Dade politics, said Thomas Kennedy, a Miami-based progressive Democrat and activist.

“He criticizes people from both sides of the political aisle and I think he is a no bullshit kind of guy,” Kennedy said. “Billy is educating a lot of people about the grifting at city and county halls in a world where journalism is being increasingly bought out by equity funds and being dismantled and diminished.”

When Corben, who is married with a daughter, isn’t popping up at city halls for public meetings, he sometimes meets with sources in Coconut Grove. In a recent phone conversation, he rattled off some of the local joints he frequents: Atchana’s Homegrown Thai Restaurant, Greenstreet Cafe, Bianco Gelato, Taurus and Panther Coffee. 

“The organic farmer’s market every Saturday [at 3300 Grand Avenue] is fantastic,” he said. “Somehow, certain pockets have managed to maintain the bohemian charm from back when Jimmy Buffett was hitting the nightclubs in Coconut Grove.” 

Corben has no illusions that his activism will somehow save Miami-Dade County from an entrenched culture of unethical and corrupt conduct. But he has no plans to stop. 

“To watch somebody as toxic and who has done so much damage to our community as Joe Carollo squirm and get uncomfortable?” Corben said. “Yes, I do enjoy that. They should be made to feel that way.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said Corben had 200,000-plus followers on X (formerly Twitter). The story should have noted that this number represented Corben’s combined following on X and Instagram, including those who follow @BecauseMiami.

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