Public corruption charges still hang over ex-Boca mayor Susan Haynie

Article Courtesy of The Bradenton Herald

By Marc Freeman

Published March 12, 2021


Boca Raton, Florida, is on the cusp of another election Tuesday for council seats, now three years removed from a scandal that rocked its leadership.

Then-Mayor Susan Haynie was bounced from office after being stung by seven criminal charges resulting from a public corruption investigation.

While the city has largely moved on with Haynie’s successor firmly in control, she and her friends and supporters are left to wait for the outcome of her case. The allegations remain pending as the coronavirus pandemic has caused an indefinite delay in her trial.

Also unresolved are similar claims against Haynie by the Florida Commission on Ethics, which could lead to a fine. She is accused of failing to report outside income and disclosing conflicts of interest as mayor.

“It’s like having the Sword of Damocles hang over her,” said Derek Vander Ploeg, a local architect who has known Haynie for over 40 years and donated to her many campaigns. “Her political career is done, which is a shame because we need more public servants like her, not less.”

Leading as mayor

Before the allegations, Haynie had received praise and criticism for leading the city through a downtown construction boom that doubled the number of apartments and condominiums.

She won a second term as mayor in 2017, collecting 55% of the vote. It appeared like it would set her on a path to a county commission seat or another higher office.

“The majority of individuals like the direction the city is going in,” she said at her victory party.

Vander Ploeg blames his friend’s downfall on politics. Haynie’s opponent in the election, Al Zucaro, ran on a platform of opposing redevelopment and he filed county and state ethics complaints against her.

Haynie, 65, has kept a low profile since she was suspended and removed from office after her 2018 arrest. She could not be reached despite a call to her cellphone.

Defense attorney Bruce Zimet says Haynie keeps busy working, without getting into specifics. She remains licensed by the state as a certified general contractor and a manager of homeowner associations.

“She wants to get the case resolved and she’s anxious to get her name cleared,” Zimet told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “The more I [review the evidence], the more I’m convinced she will be exonerated.”

Those reasons will be explained either in pretrial arguments or at the trial, he said, adding that it’s unlikely the dispute would be resolved through a plea deal. The charges are altogether punishable by up to 23 years in prison.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Alan Johnson declined to comment, citing office policy about not speaking publicly about pending cases outside of court. The next hearing is set for April 16 before Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen.

Facing charges

The most serious charges are three felony counts called official misconduct. Each concerns allegations that Haynie concealed thousands of dollars in income for reports filed from 2015 to 2017, during her first term as mayor.

Elected officials are required by law to fill out a “statement of financial interests” each year. This must include all sources of income, properties and liabilities.

To arrive at the charges, investigators at the State Attorney’s office picked through Haynie’s personal finances, ties to powerhouse landowners, and years of her City Council votes.

An arrest report shows that in 2015, Haynie listed only income from the Stanley Steemer company. In 2016 and 2017, she did not declare any income. And in 2017, she listed ownership of a Key Largo address, which is a rental property.

But investigators say a review of bank records found “a steady stream of income” into a joint account Haynie shared with her husband, Neil, for the company Community Reliance LLC, which they controlled together before 2016.

Investigators found more unreported income in another bank account for Community Reliance, and a second company the Haynies founded in 2000 called Computer Golf Software of Nevada Inc.

In a finding highlighted by the detectives, this Community Reliance account showed income totaling almost $140,000 from firms controlled by Boca Raton’s largest commercial landowners, James and Marta Batmasian.

Looking into the money

The bottom line is that investigators identified at least $335,000 in income for Haynie from 2014 to 2017, which they say she was obligated to disclose.

In the report released by prosecutors, it says, “Haynie regularly wrote checks from all of the accounts, using funds to pay personal and professional bills as well as to pay herself an income.”

There are four other public corruption charges, all misdemeanors.

Perjury in an official proceeding: This count concerns a statement Haynie gave to investigators at the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics, which was conducting its own review at the same time as the state prosecutors.

Specifically, the allegation is that Haynie wasn’t truthful when she said she had no involvement with the Community Reliance and Computer Golf Software companies. Also, there is an allegation that she gave a false statement about her husband’s role in having security cameras installed in 2016 at Tivoli Park, a 1,600-unit apartment complex in Deerfield Beach that is mostly owned by the Batmasians.

  • Misuse of public office: This count claims that as mayor, Haynie voted four times to approve matters pertaining to Batmasian properties in the city, at the same time she was being compensated by the couple.

  • Corrupt misuse of public office. This count also concerns Haynie’s votes in favor of the Batmasian interests, saying she did so with a “wrongful intent,” as she and her husband collected income “from the people benefitting from the outcomes of the votes.”

  • Failure to disclose a voting conflict. This count concerns the same votes for the Batmasian projects, claiming that Haynie violated the law by not disclosing her personal conflict.

“She was receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the individual developer involved in each one of these votes, to both herself and her husband, and she refused to actually provide any notice to anybody about this conflict,” then-prosecutor Brian Fernandes said during a 2018 hearing.

But Haynie has explained that she thought the votes were not a conflict when she made them because of advice she had received from the city attorney.

At the lawyer’s request, the Palm Beach County ethics commission issued an advisory opinion in 2013 that Haynie could vote on matters involving the Batmasians in certain circumstances.

“I followed the process in good faith,” Haynie told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2017. “I relied on the [ethics] opinion and the city attorney’s interpretation of that opinion. ... I was not hiding anything.”

Just before her arrest, Haynie agreed to a reprimand from the ethics commission and a $500 fine. The commission also dismissed a “misuse of public office” count, and said it had insufficient evidence to find whether the voting-conflicts violation was intentional or not.

Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer, who won Haynie’s old seat in a 2018 special election and was re-elected last year, has said the filing of the charges against Haynie was “a sad day for the city.” This week he told the Sun Sentinel there’s no looking back.

“Our focus,” he said, “has been moving the city of Boca Raton forward.”