The plea deal that resolved the legal case against former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie began last fall with a change in prosecutors.
Al Johnson, chief assistant to Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, took over from Brian Fernandes. Scheduling conflicts and the pandemic-related suspension of jury trials had delayed the case, which prosecutors filed in April 2018.
Bruce Zimet, Haynie’s attorney, recalled Monday that Johnson approached him to ask if there was any way to “resolve” the case. Zimet responded that Haynie would consider only an offer that did not require pleading to one of the four felony charges and admitting to corruption. Haynie also would not accept jail or prison time.
Haynie faced four third-degree felony charges. Each carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison. She also faced three first-degree misdemeanors. The maximum sentence for each was 12 months. Conviction on all counts could have meant a 23-year sentence under the law, though no judge likely would have imposed that much.
Shortly after Haynie’s arrest, Zimet said, prosecutors had offered a deal that was “totally unacceptable.” Johnson, however, was more open to talking. When discussions began in earnest this year, Zimet said, it took “a couple of months” to craft the deal that Haynie took last week.
Haynie pleaded guilty to two of the misdemeanors—Count 5 and Count 7. The first alleges that Haynie failed to take “reasonable care” to know that votes she cast “would result in a special benefit… for herself or her spouse.” The second alleges that Haynie failed to abstain from votes that would result in that same “financial benefit.”
Count 6 covers the same period as Count 5—Sept. 1, 2016 through June 14, 2017—and the same four votes. Notably, though, Count 6 alleges that Haynie acted “corruptly” to secure that benefit. Prosecutors dropped that and the four felony counts.
All the charges arose from votes on properties belonging to Investments Limited, one of Boca Raton’s largest landowners. Investments Limited, whose principals are James and Marta Batmasian, own Royal Palm Place, among many other holdings.
Companies controlled by Susan Haynie and/or her husband, Neil Haynie, did business directly or indirectly with entities that the Batmasians controlled. The perception from the November 2017 Palm Beach Post article headlined “Secret ties between Boca mayor, Batmasian revealed” was that Haynie sold her office.
That perception, Zimet said, was false. “This was never a corruption case.” Johnson confirmed that, telling the South Florida Sun Sentinel, “There was no quid pro quo in exchange for her votes.”
Zimet said Haynie “didn’t do proper due diligence” on her husband’s business relationship with the Batmasians. Though the Haynies acted separately at times, Zimet acknowledged, “They are husband and wife,” meaning that any income accrues to both. He added that, as a public official, Susan Haynie needed to make sure that was “no question of the line that needed to be drawn.”
Corrupt vote trading always seemed a stretch. The votes on Batmasian properties were not controversial. Most were unanimous.
After the Haynies’ company, Community Reliance, received a contract in 2013 to help manage a Deerfield Beach condo community in which the Batmasians owned roughly 80 percent of the units, Susan Haynie sought an advisory opinion from the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics. After much negotiation, City Attorney Diana Frieser secured an opinion worded in a way that Frieser said allowed Haynie to vote on Batmasian items.
Haynie relied on that opinion when Al Zucaro—who ran the former BocaWatch website and lost to Haynie in the 2017 mayoral election—filed a complaint with the ethics commission. On April 13, 2018, Haynie reached a settlement with the commission in which she admitted to an ethics violation and received a letter of reprimand.
It seemed that Haynie had resolved the issue of votes involving the Batmasians. Eleven days later, however, she was arrested.
It remains puzzling why Haynie risked her public image stemming from a relationship with Boca Raton that began in 1974 when she went to work as a city planner. After winning reelection, she seemed on track to succeed Steven Abrams—also a former Boca Raton mayor—on the county commission in 2018 and cap her career. Why not just cancel the Batmasian contract? Why not remove all doubt and just abstain from voting?
In retrospect, the state attorney’s office overcharged. A guilty plea on two misdemeanors and no jail time is a long way from four felonies and 23 years.
Still, this last chapter forever will define Haynie. In a statement, she said Boca Raton has high standards for elected officials and that she “failed to live up to that standard.” Haynie added, “I accept responsibility.”
Delray-Highland Beach fire rescue
On the agenda for today’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting is an item calling for “discussion” of the city’s contract to provide fire-rescue services for Highland Beach. There’s no backup material, but the issue is that Highland Beach is unhappy.
The cities signed the 10-year contract in 2017. If either wants out of the deal, it must give the other city three years notice. Highland Beach has hired a consultant who believes that the town is paying too much. Town commissioners also have the issue on their agenda for today.
According to the consultant, Highland Beach has two options if the town wants to end the contract. The town could start its own department or cross-train the police officers and form a hybrid public safety department. There has been no discussion about another possible option: seeking a contract with Boca Raton.
Town Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman said the consultant “projects” $2 million in annual savings for Highland Beach after “startup costs” for a new department. Gossett-Seidman complained that Highland Beach has “no seat at the table” when Delray Beach negotiates contracts with firefighters, as the city did last month.
Delray Beach City Commission Ryan Boylston suggested that Highland Beach’s dissatisfaction might stem from the cost of Delray Beach’s decision to put three paramedics on each truck. Boylston also said that while the contract began as break-even, “It’s a loser for us.”
Third gas station?
Also on the Delray Beach commission agenda is the proposal for another gas station at Atlantic and Congress avenues, just west of Interstate 95.
The intersection already has stations on two corners. This proposal is for a 20-pump RaceTrac facility that also would have a convenience store. It would be on the southwest corner of the intersection and would replace a Walgreens drugstore.
Gas stations can be controversial because they create so much traffic. Because of the underground tanks, such sites are difficult to repurpose if a station fails.
The staff report notes that the convenience store would offer some fresh food and thus increase healthy options near Atlantic High School. It also notes, however, that the city’s comprehensive plan also calls for transit-oriented development (TOD) in that area.
TOD projects encourage the use of mass transit and less reliance on cars. A gas station obviously does the opposite. In addition, the “Congress Avenue Delray Beach’s Next Great Street” report calls for “a balance of uses along the corridor.” Commissioners may decide that three gas stations at that location is one too many.
Atlantic Grove addition
Tuesday’s agenda is packed because of the lull that followed Delray Beach’s March 9 election. One more item concerns Atlantic Grove, the mixed-use project in The Set.
New Urban Communities wants to add 14 townhouses to the existing 55 and to build a new cabana. The historic preservation board unanimously recommended approval. The staff report notes the project’s “commitment to the community through the programming that the Center for Technology, Enterprise and Development and the Delray Beach Community Development Center (who are part owners involved in the project) provide to Delray Beach.”
Baldwin gives big to BRRH
The woman who donated money for the president’s house at Florida Atlantic University has made her second major gift toward Boca Raton Regional Hospital’s capital campaign.
According to a news release, Eleanor R. Baldwin’s total is now $7.5 million. Her latest donation means that Boca Regional has raised roughly $193 million of its $250 million goal for new patient towers, parking facilities and a power plant. Boca Regional CEO Lincoln Mendez said of Baldwin, “There is no way to characterize the level of gratitude we feel for Eleanor.”