Ethics director pokes hole in Boca mayor’s defense of developer votes

The executive director of the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission delivered a blow to Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie’s cover for votes she’s taken involving a major developer with whom she has financial ties.

And she’s not happy about it.

Ethics Director Mark Bannon confirmed the findings of a Palm Beach Post investigation, saying a 2013 opinion that Haynie has used doggedly to defend her votes on projects involving James Batmasian does not green light them when Batmasian is either the applicant or developer coming before the city. In all 12 votes Haynie has taken, Batmasian or one of his business entities was one or both.

Haynie accused Bannon of “cherry-picking” his facts and said at a Boca Raton City Council meeting Tuesday night that she’s going to ask him to clarify his comments, which came in a letter to the council.

Haynie founded a property management firm with her husband that manages a residential association whose board is nearly all Batmasian employees. Haynie’s Community Reliance has managed the property since 2010, and she’s sat on the council since 2008. James and Marta Batmasian are the largest commercial landowners in Boca Raton.

Tuesday night, Haynie told her colleagues that the ethics opinion’s key point was whether the property association would benefit from any vote she took, and since the Deerfield Beach association wouldn’t, she could vote.

Missing from that equation is the control the Batmasians exert over the association, which manages a residential community where they own 1,400 of 1,600 units.

And ethics experts have told The Post these opinions apply only to situations that mirror all of the facts in the opinion’s conclusion. That’s where the developer/applicant issue comes in.

Haynie also said she would not ask for a new opinion to guide her on future votes involving Batmasian.

The council’s new ethics ordinance, which hasn’t yet been adopted, would require her to post her request and any correspondence about it on the city’s website. In 2013, both she and Batmasian were anonymous when the ethics commission was asked to render an opinion.

On deck could be a transformative project in the heart of downtown Boca Raton. In June, Batmasian’s company Investments Limited, submitted plans to tear down a portion of his signature commercial plaza, Royal Palm Place, and build two high-rise apartments.

Haynie did say she would consult with Bannon for guidance before any votes in the future and she would report back to her council colleagues on what he said.

It isn’t clear whether Bannon would offer such advice. In responding to the council’s request that the commission revisit Haynie’s 2013 opinion, Bannon said the commission doesn’t look backward.

Nor will it offer guidance for the future unless a new opinion describing a potential conflict is requested. And that can be done in this case only by Haynie or the city attorney on her behalf.

Bannon could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

In 2013, the ethics commission first told Haynie she shouldn’t vote if Batmasian was the developer. The ethics commission said Haynie should recuse herself and harshly criticized the business relationship, saying it lent itself to opportunities for corruption.

Then the city attorney changed the facts, saying Batmasian was an investor in the project, not the developer.

The commissioners gave her a hesitant nod.

Meanwhile, a Haynie political foe launched new ethics complaints against her, expanding one with the Florida Commission on Ethics and filing a new one with the county.

“It is painfully apparent that this city council is unwilling and unable to address the obvious conflict questions involving Susan Haynie,” said Al Zucaro, who Haynie defeated in a contentious March mayoral election.

The added complaint he filed with the state now gives it leeway to investigate the Haynie-Batmasian business relationship detailed by The Post. Zucaro’s initial complaint centered on whether Haynie should have put Community Reliance on her required financial disclosure forms. She has never listed the company as a source of income, saying the $12,000-a-year the company made all went to her husband.

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