“End the Corruption” Seeks to Recall Mayor Lago

A dubious campaign to unseat Lago begins by breaking the law for recalls

Anyone who has watched a Coral Gables City Commission meeting in the last few years knows who Maria Cruz is. A former Miami Beach Senior High teacher, the longtime Gables resident has, for years, been present at City Hall as a resident “activist,” addressing and lecturing the City Commission at virtually every meeting. For years, she and Mayor Vince Lago had a friendly relationship dating back to his time as a commissioner. Now, she’s finally picked up an official title — just not one at City Hall. Cruz is chairperson of the political committee End the Corruption, which is seeking to recall Lago based on charges of “misfeasance and malfeasance.”

“She used to be someone willing to entertain different opinions and ideas,” said Lago of Cruz. But after it came out at a City Commission meeting that she had misappropriated approximately $69,000 in funds from other school clubs into the booster club account at Miami Beach Senior High, “she started becoming angry, resentful, and distrustful,” he said. The settlement led to her transfer from the school, a letter of reprimand from the district, restitution payments, and a three-year probation.

Recall Mayor Lago
Resident Maria Cruz actively participates in city commission meetings.

Cruz did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Coral Gables Magazine, but attorney David Winker, who Cruz hired as the registered agent for End the Corruption, said his perception is that the recall effort is not personal. Residents “are tired of reading in the paper about the mayor doing deals they don’t think he should be doing with people they don’t think he should be doing deals with,” he said.

Winker is presumably referencing several Miami Herald articles that detailed Miami Mayor Francis Suarez ties to developer Rishi Kapoor, now under investigation by the FBI and SEC. In the articles, the Herald tied in Lago as a childhood friend of Suarez, though it could not come up with any wrongdoing except by association. Photos used by the Herald showed Lago at a ribbon cutting for a dog park that Kapoor donated to the city, for example, and at the groundbreaking for Kapoor’s Villa Valencia condo project.

The charges of “misfeasance and malfeasance” the recall petition notes are just two — the rental of a storefront property to Kapoor, at market rate, as a sales office across the street from Kapoor’s 1505 Ponce condo project (Lago, who owned 40% of the storefront, announced the lease and recused himself from any vote on the project) and a commission of $640,000 that went to a brokerage firm where Lago had his realtor’s license registered. Lago did not receive any of the commission, and again recused himself from any vote on the property. The petition also states that “it was reported that he [Lago] helped Kapoor’s project behind the scenes using his influence as mayor,” with no reference to where this was reported nor any details.

Recall Mayor Lago

While End the Corruption posits that the mayor is in the pockets of developers, he claims the recall is likely being funded by developers “who want to transform Miracle Mile into Brickell, and who will not stop with their political attacks until they get their way.”

One thing is clear: Someone is paying people to collect signatures for the recall, even though Florida law says only volunteers can collect such signatures. Despite a firm denial by Winker that there is any funding to End the Corruption’s political committee, Coral Gables Magazine has independently confirmed that the signature collectors were being paid $15 per hour “by the people behind the recall.” Someone also paid for a website, T-shirts, social media blasts, and flyers.

Rumors abound that developer Stephen Bittel, who owns multiple properties on Miracle Mile, and political consultant Jeffrey Garcia, are helping fund the effort. Bittel funded Lago’s last political opponent, Pat Keon, who ran against him for mayor in 2021. Keon was considered pro-development, while Lago was against up-zoning Miracle Mile. Garcia, meanwhile, has been twice convicted for election mischief. Neither his nor Bittel’s involvement has been confirmed; Bittel did not return emails from Coral Gables Magazine.

Lago is up for re-election next April and says that he thinks the recall effort is meant to distract voters from other, more important issues. “Why would anyone try to recall a mayor that will face the voters in less than 12 months?” he asked. To get a recall done in the State of Florida, at least five percent of registered voters in Cora Gables must sign a petition for recall. After that, a second petition must receive at least 10 percent of voters’ signatures.