Ethics panel begins probe of Boca Raton mayor’s potential conflict

Updated Nov 28, 2017
Boca Mayor Susan Haynie at the council meeting on Nov. 13, 2017. (Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post)

The county ethics body that gave Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie the go-ahead in 2013 to vote on projects involving developer James Batmasian apparently has launched an investigation after a Palm Beach Post story detailed financial ties between Haynie and Batmasian.

Commission on Ethics Executive Director Mark Bannon says he is prevented by county rules from confirming whether such a probe is taking place. But one of his investigators this past week requested from the city a trove of emails exchanged between Boca Raton’s top officials that reference Haynie and Batmasian.

After The Post’s story, the Boca council made a formal request to the ethics commission for a review. But it’s likely the commission initiated the investigation on its own.

Haynie, a longtime Boca Raton political figure and Republican candidate for Palm Beach County Commission, and her husband founded a property management firm that for years has been collecting thousands in paychecks from a company controlled by Batmasian and his wife. All the while, she has voted on at least a dozen projects that benefit Batmasian, the largest commercial property owner in the city, without disclosing the business link, The Post found.

Without identifying herself or Batmasian, Haynie sought an ethics advisory opinion in 2013 to see if she could vote. After several revisions over months, the commission found that she could vote under narrow circumstances.

The opinion applies to only when Batmasian is neither the developer nor the applicant coming before the Boca Raton City Council. However, in the 12 votes she took, he or his company was the developer or applicant, The Post found.

The ethics investigator, Abigail Irizarry, made a public request Nov. 22 for city emails exchanged in 2013 that include keywords such as “Batmasian,” “Commission on Ethics,” and “property management company,” among others.

A week earlier, the council instructed City Manager Leif Ahnell to send a letter to the ethics commission asking the commission to review the 2013 opinion and “either affirm the issued advisory opinion or re-address the advisory opinion in an appropriate fashion.”

But the ethics commission doesn’t issue opinions on past opinions, Bannon said. Ethics commission staff discussed the letter this past week, but Bannon could not comment on what steps they might be taking, again citing county rules.

Instead, Haynie or the city can request a new opinion with a new set of facts to guide future votes.

Under those circumstances, the ethics commission’s request for emails is not a review of a past opinion, as Boca Raton requested, but a step in probing Haynie’s actions.

A related complaint from a Haynie political foe also is the subject of a Florida Commission on Ethics review.

The city council was expected to discuss the issue tonight.