Boca mayor welcomes probe into developer ties: I have ‘no conflict’

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie said Tuesday she would welcome a new review by the ethics body that four years ago raised concerns about her business relationship with a controversial developer.

After The Palm Beach Post detailed her financial ties to Boca’s largest commercial property owner, Haynie again asserted that a 2013 ethics opinion justified her record of voting a dozen times on projects brought to the City Council by James Batmasian.

“Sunday, the Palm Beach Post published an article saying that I had ‘secret financial ties’ to a Boca developer in an attempt to imply a conflict of interest,” Haynie, who recently announced a bid for county commission, wrote in a statement to The Post. “The problem with the story is there are no secret financial ties and no conflict of interest.”

» READ THE POST’S INVESTIGATION: Secret financial ties between Boca mayor, developer Batmasian revealed

Haynie, welcoming another round of scrutiny, might get just that.

The director of the local ethics board, Mark Bannon, said he found The Post article “very interesting,” but he’s barred from discussing whether it has or will prompt a probe in Haynie’s case.

The ethics commission in the past has looked into matters reported by local media, he said.

Meanwhile, the Florida Commission on Ethics has responded to a complaint from Haynie’s political rival Al Zucaro, who says he has been told to expect a visit from a state investigator.

The Post found that Haynie has voted at least a dozen times on proposals brought forward by James Batmasian, a philanthropist and attorney who has served time in federal prison. During that time, a business founded by Haynie and her husband has collected thousands of dollars from a company controlled by Batmasian and his wife, Marta.

Haynie said her relationship was no secret, saying she disclosed the issue, and the ethics opinion, at a public meeting. But when pressed, she could not cite the date of the meeting.

She did not explain why her request for an ethics opinion did not identify her or Batmasian. And she did not address why when she abstained from voting on a Batmasian project in 2011, she was not specific about the nature of her conflict of interest at the public meeting or in paperwork she filed after the meeting.

State probe

Zucaro’s complaint centers on Haynie’s failure to list Community Reliance, a company she founded with her husband in 2007, on annual state financial disclosure forms.

Haynie said she didn’t report income from the company because she didn’t receive any. Her husband did. Yet paperwork submitted to the ethics commission for the 2013 opinion said they both received compensation from that company.

On Tuesday, Haynie again asserted that she did nothing wrong, saying, “I have followed all state financial disclosure laws.”

An investigator told Zucaro he plans to visit Boca Raton to interview those involved, Zucaro said.

Under state law, the ethics commission cannot confirm or deny the existence of preliminary investigations. But if Zucaro is visited by a state ethics investigator, it would indicate that the complaint has been deemed “legally sufficient.” The phrase means the allegations — if proven — rise to the level of an ethics violation.

After an investigation that often takes months, the matter goes to the state ethics board, which determines if there is “probable cause” that a law was violated. At that point, the complaint and the investigator’s findings become public.

Zucaro’s complaint, however, did not include all of the findings reported Sunday by The Post. He provided The Post a copy of the complaint after the story published online Friday.

He said he forwarded the news story to the ethics commission investigator.

The state ethics commission informed Haynie of Zucaro’s allegations in a letter dated Aug. 23. The Post interviewed Haynie about the potential voting conflicts in August.

She called it “a repulsive form of political retribution,” contending it was prompted by her Oct. 18 announcement to run for county commission.

“My personal integrity has come under attack right after I have filed to run for County Commission,” she said. “This is no coincidence and is more of the same political retaliation from my opponent.”

Spousal benefits

Haynie, who has held a seat on the Boca council since 2008, is listed on state corporate records from 2007 to 2015 as a managing member of Community Reliance. Her name does not appear on the company’s corporate reports in 2016 or 2017.

The fact that Haynie dropped her name caught Bannon’s attention, prompting him to point out that the ethics code doesn’t distinguish between benefits to elected officials and benefits to their spouses.

“The fact that she removed her name makes no difference to us,” he said.

Opinion’s ‘narrow wording’

Haynie’s most powerful argument that she can vote is that her ties to Batmasian are not direct.

The paychecks earned by Haynie’s firm don’t come directly from the Batmasians, but from a residential association in Deerfield Beach that contracts with Community Reliance.

The board of the residential association, Tivoli Park Master Association, is controlled by Batmasian and a majority of the board members are Batmasian’s employees. The Batmasians own 1,400 rental apartments in the 1,600-unit Deerfield Beach complex.

The county ethics commission, which did not know the identities of any of the players involved in 2013, discussed the issue at length during three public meetings. After writing an opinion that said Haynie should not vote, the commission reversed itself in August 2013 based on new information. They were told that Batmasian was an “investor” controlling the Tivoli Park Master Association but not associated with the developer seeking permission to build in Boca Raton.

In the first opinion, in which Haynie was told not to vote, Batmasian was described as a developer who was the applicant before the City Council.

Ultimately, the ethics commission supported an opinion that stated she could vote under the condition that the investor was neither the applicant nor the developer.

That “narrow wording” applies only to the scenario described, Bannon said.

In all 12 votes cited Sunday by The Post, Batmasian or one of his companies was the applicant, the developer or both.

In her statement Tuesday, Haynie continued to rely on the opinion.

“I would welcome a prospective reexamination of the 2013 Commission on Ethics opinion,” she wrote. “I am absolutely confident that this opinion will, for the second time, find that I have no conflict of interest in this matter.”

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