Real estate mogul James Batmasian said two former employees are conspiring with a former business associate to pry money from him by concocting false tales of sex harassment and fraud.
“I don’t think there’s any question there’s a conspiracy,” Batmasian said this week. “If you’re rich, you’re a walking target.”
In an exclusive hourlong interview, the billionaire real estate investor said the allegations of sex and sexual harassment not only are completely false, they have unfairly tarnished innocent people listed in a 2014 lawsuit filed against him by his former leasing agent, Karla Sotomayor.
Batmasians’ lawyers have the lawsuit under a temporary seal keeping it out of public view, but Sotomayor’s lawyer will ask a judge on June 10 to lift the seal. The lawsuit has been on The Palm Beach Post website for one year and is publicly available from the court clerk in two other related cases.
James and his wife, Marta, are among the county’s largest private owners of real estate, worth more than $500 million, stretching from Boynton Beach to Boca Raton. They also are the single largest owner of commercial properties in downtown Boca Raton.
Among their prized properties: The signature Royal Palm Place shopping plaza on Federal Highway.
Batmasian’s history is colorful. He’s a major philanthropist and active in several charities. He’s also a felon who pleaded guilty and went to federal prison in 2008 for failing to pay $253,513 in federal withholding income tax for employees at Boca Raton-based Investments Limited. Batmasian spent less than a year in prison and soon was back to running his real estate empire, which includes acquiring, improving and renting out space in many shopping centers.
Last year, Batmasian became embroiled in lawsuits that claim wrongful practices in his financial dealings and workplace.
Sotomayor’s lawsuit alleged that working for the Batmasians meant working in a sex-filled hostile work environment. The lawsuit also names Daron Tersakyan, whom Sotomayor called Batmasian’s “right-hand man.”
Sotomayor claims Batmasian directed her to lease commercial space to people involved in the sex trade so Batmasian could demand sexual favors from the tenants for him and his friends, according to court documents.
Last year, police arrested three women for their role in allegedly running a house of prostitution at the O’Asian Wellness and Spa, on Glades Road in Boca Raton. Batmasian owns the property, according to county records.
Batmasian said he can’t be expected to know what happens with each of his tenants. “I have 2,700 businesses” leasing space, and six people handling leasing, he said.
Sotomayor’s lawsuit also alleged Batmasian directed her to have sexual liaisons with some of his business associates, which she said she did not do. In the complaint, Sotomayor, who is from Ecuador, claimed Batmasian is a man with a “voracious sexual appetite for Latin women,” and an employer who frequently indicated he was romantically interested in her.
Sotomayor, who worked for Investments Limited from 2006 to 2014, has filed a charge of discrimination with the Florida Commission on Human Relations.
Batmasian said none of Sotomayor’s claims is true.
For instance, he called “crazy” her claim he committed sexual harassment by writing a note complimenting her appearance. “We treated her like a member of the family,” he said.
Furthermore, he said he hired Sotomayor at someone’s request. “You try to help people,” he said.
Batmasian said Sotomayor started as a property manager, left, came back and worked as a leasing agent. “We said, ‘OK, we’ll train you,’ ” he said. “She has a pretty good gift of gab, and she’s bilingual.”
After working for him for a while, “all of a sudden out of the blue” came the allegations of sexual harassment, he said.
Sotomayor is not the first employee who has sued Batmasian for sexual harassment and retaliation. In 2012, Casey Giannola sued Batmasian for sexually harassing her.
She alleged Batmasian repeatedly inquired about her sexual availability to him and propositioned her to be his mistress.
Like Sotomayor, Giannola filed a charge of discrimination with the Florida Commision on Human Relations. She then filed the lawsuit, represented by Chris Kleppin, Sotomayor’s lawyer.
Of Giannola, Batmasian said: “She was very flirty,” and sent “mixed messages.” But, he added, “I never ever touched the girl.”
The lawsuit settled in 2013 and was not sealed.
But Batmasian said he is seeking to keep a seal on Sotomayor’s lawsuit to protect innocent parties, some of whom he said he doesn’t even know. Sotomayor’s lawsuit includes the names of people whom she claims had sexual relations with Batmasians, as well as the names of his business associates.
Keeping the lawsuit sealed from the public “is the right thing to do,” Batmasian said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to have all these people’s names slandered in the public domain….These are real people, with fathers and children.”
Sotomayor’s lawyer, Kleppin, is asking Judge Catherine Brunson to open the Sotomayor case at the June hearing. In a recent filing, Kleppin wrote there was no basis to seal the complaint, which is a public matter involving a claim for sexual harassment and retaliation.
The Palm Beach Post obtained a copy of the Sotomayor complaint from the public court files maintained by the Clerk of Court.
After Sotomayor’s case was filed, the Batmasians obtained a temporary seal on the case.
Batmasian said Sotomayor is conspiring with two other people: James Baker, the company’s former chief financial officer, who is suing the Batmasians separately as a whistleblower, alleging “rampant mortgage, wire, financial, accounting and tax fraud;” and Joseph Falso, once a close friend and Batmasian general contractor, now locked in litigation over a money dispute.
Batmasian said Sotomayor began a romantic relationship with Baker while they worked together at Investments Limited, a relationship that he said is against company policy.
In court documents, Sotomayor acknowledged her romantic relationship with Baker began in 2009 while they worked together for the Batmasians. Sotomayor and Baker married in September 2014.
Batmasian said the allegations have made life hard for him, his family and his business. Because of Baker’s lawsuit alleging fraud, lenders are reluctant to renew loans or make new ones.
“So much of the time they don’t tell you why,” he said of the lenders.But then they’ll ask: “Is this case over with?” Batmasian said. “All those lies were very, very harmful indeed.”
One lender, Mercantile Bank, with whom Batmasian has $70 million in real estate loans, now insists that tenant rents on bank-financed properties be deposited directly in Mercantile Bank accounts. Batmasian said the bank told him it was making this move “out of an abundance of caution.”
Lenders’ concerns are not warranted, Batmasian said. Loans to him are are personally guaranteed, and his properties are cross-collateralized. In addition, “In 44 years, I’ve never had a default with a lender,” he said.
Despite the stress on his family and business, Batmasian said he won’t back down when it comes to fighting the lawsuits. “I am not going to settle,” he said.
While Batmasian hopes the matters will be resolved in the next few months, he said he’s willing to stick it out for years, if that’s what it takes.
“It’s not appropriate what they are doing,” Batmasian said of his adversaries. “They’re doing it for money.”
MORE ONLINE: Read the sealed lawsuit against James Batmasian and exhibits at www.mypalmbeachpost.com/review-lawsuit