There's no secret here, that's what the Mayor of Boca Raton claims, after a Palm Beach Post investigation uncovered what it calls "secret financial ties" between Mayor Susan Haynie and the city's largest commercial property owner.
City council members, along with the city's attorney, met Monday to discuss the investigation. Many council members called for an investigation into the controversy, but did not come to a conclusion about who should investigate, and what they should specifically investigate.
In a sit down interview with Contact 5, Mayor Susan Haynie insisted several times that she did nothing wrong, and that she was told by the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics that there was no voting conflict. The Post's investigation found Haynie voted on several proposals benefiting the Batmasians, after a property management company she and her husband collected thousands of dollars from a company controlled by them.
But the question Contact 5 and many of the city council members had at the meeting, was why the city attorney fought so hard to get that opinion, the one that said there was no voting conflict. Records show she went back and forth with ethics investigators for months.
"There seems to have been a lot of political spin and not factual information regarding what this opinion says," said Haynie when asked about why it was so important to get this opinion.
The opinion, given to her in 2013, said she had no conflict of interest when it came to voting on issues related to the Batmasians, the largest commercial property owners in Boca. According to the Post, "the center of Haynie’s conflict: Her property management firm, Community Reliance,oversees Tivoli Park, a 1,600-unit apartment complex in Deerfield Beach. The Batmasians own 1,400 units and have majority control over the board of directors and its finances. Five of the six Tivoli board members work for the Batmasians’ company, Investments Limited." Community Reliance has been collecting $12,000 a year from them for years.
We asked the mayor why she didn't disclose any of that money on state financial forms. First, she said that the disclosure form didn't have a place to disclose it, because it only tells you to list business interests in certain categories. "Property management doesn’t fall in any of those categories," said Haynie. Then, she explained that because it was her husband's company, she didn't have to. Contact 5 explained that many would roll their eyes at thinking she didn't profit from her husband's company. Hayne replied, "The perception in some cases can cloud the actual facts and truths."
But the council Monday was more concerned with how the ethics commission got to that no conflict opinion.
A first draft opinion given to the city attorney said there was no voting conflict, but "an appearance of impropriety," and that the official should refrain from voting.
The city attorney says she responded to that opinion, by explaining that state law says the city official has to vote, even if there is an appearance of impropriety. She told the public, and council members, state law says an official must vote if there's no conflict of interest and she felt the commission needed to know.
A second similar opinion was issued after that, and then set for discussion at a Commission on Ethics board meeting in 2013. But the city attorney claims, before they were set to discuss it, they had more questions, so they tabled it. She says she never challenged the second opinion, just gave needed clarification, so the commission could make a decision.
A lot of the back and forth centered around calling Batmasian a "developer," or "investor."
As the Palm Beach Post reports, "the ethics board relented in August 2013 — after the term “developer” was replaced with “investor,” saying it was a more accurate description of the Batmasians.
The third and final opinion from the Commission on Ethics said there was no conflict or appearance of impropriety. "The final wording of the ethics opinion gives Haynie permission to vote in very limited circumstances, specifically scenarios in which James and Marta Batmasian are not the developers or applicants," according to the Post. "But in the dozen votes that Haynie took, James Batmasian or one of his businesses was the applicant, developer or both," the Post reports.
We asked the mayor if she felt she had done anything unethical, "No, I have not done anything unethical, I followed the process very closely and clearly."
But the opinion, it's worth noting, doesn't specifically mention the company's names or the mayor's. That's because when the city attorney sought the opinion on behalf of the mayor, she did so anonymously, not using Mayor Haynie's or the Batmasians' name.
Contact 5 questioned the mayor on why her name was left out of any documents when the city attorney sought out this opinion. Mayor Haynie said that it was the city attorney's recommendation and the city attorney would address it at the meeting. She never did.
As for the city council, they made several recommendations Monday, saying that all ethics opinions sought should be made public on the website from now on and none should be anonymous. One council member asked for an independent entity to come in and investigate. Other council members said the State Commission on Ethics and State Attorney's Office are enough. Sources tell Contact 5 both offices are looking into the matter.
The Council said they would pick up the discussion, and decide on any resolutions at a different time.