With campaign threatened, Boca mayor drops Batmasian business ties

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie announced late Tuesday that her husband had ended his business relationship with developers James and Marta Batmasian, cutting off a potential conflict of interest she has steadfastly denied since The Palm Beach Post detailed it in early November.

Distancing herself from a business relationship that threatened her bid for a Palm Beach County Commission seat, Haynie told her council colleagues, “Hopefully, that will put this matter to rest.”

However, her action does nothing to offset the dozen votes she has taken on Batmasian projects over several years. Haynie claimed a county ethics opinion gave her the green light to vote on his proposals but a Post analysis showed how the narrowly worded opinion did not apply.

Two months into a bid for County Commission, Haynie’s campaign is showing signs of trouble.

Where past commission candidates have raised as much as $48,000 in their first two months of campaigning, Haynie has hauled in just $15,000.

And two-thirds of that came in before The Post published its story. She has raised just $5,000 since then.

While Haynie didn’t elaborate further on the decision to end the contract, her campaign manager, Rick Asnani, told The Post that Haynie, a Republican who has served 17 years in elected office, wants to “make sure that there are no doubts that she continues to want to be a transparent public servant.”

The decision to quit the contract with Batmasian-controlled Tivoli Park Master Association came now, Asnani said, because Haynie and her husband had to give “adequate notice.”

Many local political observers wondered why Haynie would persist in the contract with a major Boca Raton landowner that pays just $14,400 a year, while taking the political risk of voting on his projects. She sought the ethics opinion anonymously.

Campaign consultants say early months of fund-raising are vital, and that Haynie’s modest donations paint the picture of a campaign at risk. And the inescapable controversy shrouding Haynie gives potential opponents, Republican or Democrat, an inherent edge, although she currently is unopposed.

The former Boca mayor who now holds the county commission seat, Steven Abrams, raised $47,000 in his first two months of fund-raising for his 2014 campaign. Mack Bernard raised $48,000 in his first two months before winning his county commission seat in 2016.

Asnani countered that Haynie hadn’t actively sought donations or kicked off her campaign.

“Our campaign plan is to raise money during the new year,” Asnani said. “Our donor base and support base are still strong.”

But while Haynie has been keeping a low profile on the campaign trail, her financial ties to Batmasian have dominated council discussions and sparked changes in how the council seeks ethics guidance.

In fact, Haynie made the announcement at a meeting that opened with a 15-minute lecture from the county’s ethics director, Mark Bannon.

Bannon alluded to a point he previously had stressed to The Post: Haynie should request a new advisory opinion from the ethics commission to guide future votes on projects that involve Batmasian, the largest commercial landowner in the city. That problem goes away if the Haynie company, Community Reliance, stops working for the Batmasians.

Haynie said at a past meeting that she personally would reach out to Bannon for guidance on her potential conflict of interest. But she never did, Bannon said. He appeared at Tuesday’s meeting at the council’s request.

Haynie and her husband founded Community Reliance in 2007. She removed her name from the company’s corporate record two years ago, leaving just her husband.

Without referencing Haynie directly, Bannon emphasized that when it comes to conflicts of interests, a spouse’s business dealings are inseparable from an elected official.

“It’s considered your outside business even if you have nothing to do with the business,” Bannon said.

Haynie never reported any income from Community Reliance on annual state financial disclosure forms. She faces ethics probes from both the county ethics commission and the state’s.

Before The Post’s story broke, local Democrats were unprepared to field a candidate against Haynie, even though the southern Palm Beach County district has a slight Democratic edge. Fueled by the revelation of Haynie’s business dealings, those same Democrats vowed to run a candidate against her.

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