- Lulu Ramadan Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
At the tail end of a six-hour meeting, a combative city council decided Tuesday to formally ask whether Mayor Susan Haynie has misinterpreted an ethics opinion for years, voting on projects proposed by controversial developer James Batmasian despite her financial ties to him.
The council decided, with Haynie’s support, to go back to the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics, which issued an opinion in 2013 that Haynie says clears her to votes on Batmasian’s projects.
The ethics commission, however, already may be investigating. One of its investigators was in the audience Monday when the council spent two hours discussing a Palm Beach Post story that showed how Haynie relied on a narrowly crafted 2013 opinion to cast a dozen votes on Batmasian proposals.
Investigator Abigail Irizarry said Tuesday she “found it very interesting” but, following ethics commission rules, she could not confirm an investigation.
The stakes could be far-reaching. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, Haynie’s chief rival on the council, questioned whether problems with the ethics opinion raised in a Nov. 5 Post story should force Haynie to abstain in the future from votes involving Batmasian.
That would include Batmasian’s multimillion-dollar plan to transform his signature downtown property, Royal Palm Place. The plan, submitted in June, calls for knocking down part of the structure and erecting two apartment towers.
Toward the end of a lengthy meeting, as midnight neared, tempers flared over the Haynie issue.
Councilman Robert Weinroth and O’Rourke had a heated exchange after he brought up an ethics opinion she received in 2017 over her husband’s financial relationship with Batmasian. George O’Rourke, an investment banker, stopped managing a Batmasian account when his wife was elected to office.
“First of all, my husband and I have no relationship with the Batmasians and haven’t since my first month on council. Period. End of story,” O’Rourke said.
When he spoke a moment later, she interjected, “Excuse me, I’m speaking.”
Also, City Attorney Diana Frieser took offense when O’Rourke criticized her over her role in seeking the 2013 ethics opinion.
O’Rourke said Frieser pushed too hard in 2013 to get Haynie an opinion that would enable her to vote on Batmasian projects. Frieser said Tuesday that O’Rourke privately accused her of acting improperly.
“I wouldn’t call that an accusation,” O’Rourke said. “I just question whether that was the right thing to do. It looked like you were trying to get a specific opinion.”
The ethics commission drafted opinions twice in 2013 that suggested Haynie recuse herself from voting on Batmasian proposals. Frieser pressed on, however. She changed the wording and submitted a third request that eventually received a hesitant nod from the ethics commission.
On Tuesday, Frieser said she would have no part in a new request to the ethics commission, saying she would be uncomfortable in that role.
In the end, the council asked City Manager Leif Ahnell to write a letter to the ethics commission seeking a review. Haynie’s actions also are the subject of a complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The narrowly worded county ethics opinion allowed Haynie to vote on Batmasian projects even though a property management firm she founded with her husband has been collecting paychecks for years from a company controlled by Batmasian and his wife, Marta.
The opinion permits Haynie’s votes in limited circumstances in which Batmasian is neither the developer nor the applicant in a project, but has an underlying financial benefit, The Post reported. Frieser pointed out on Monday that the opinion allows Haynie to vote because the Deerfield Beach company controlled by Batmasian is not involved in any of his Boca projects.
In at least a dozen of Haynie’s votes, The Post found, Batmasian or one of his business entities was the developer, applicant or both.
Frieser didn’t identify Haynie or Batmasian when requesting the ethics opinion in April 2013. Neither Haynie nor Frieser have explained publicly why they didn’t mention Haynie’s name. One day before they submitted the request to the ethics commission, Haynie filed to run for mayor for the first time. She is now running for Palm Beach County Commission.
On Monday, the council said it would ban the practice of submitting anonymously to the ethics commission. However, the ethics commission no longer accepts anonymous requests.
The questions facing Haynie went beyond O’Rourke, who is tightly linked to Haynie’s political foe, Al Zucaro. Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers also wondered if Haynie can rely on the opinion going forward.
He proposed “proactively” sending a letter and The Post’s Nov. 5 story to the ethics commission to ask whether Haynie misinterpreted the opinion.
“I would be aghast if they’re not already thinking about it,” Rodgers said.