By Mary Hladky
Susan Haynie easily won her second term as mayor in 2017. She then set her sights on a bigger political prize: running for a seat on the Palm Beach County Commission.
But her successful political career spanning nearly 20 years imploded on April 24, 2018, when she was arrested on public corruption charges, a development that shocked other City Council members and threw the city into turmoil.
Haynie’s attorney proclaimed her innocence and said she would never accept a plea deal.
Until she did.
On April 1, Haynie pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts, of misuse of public office and failure to disclose voting conflicts.
The plea deal allowed her to avoid four felony counts that, had she been convicted, could have landed her in prison for more than 20 years. The State Attorney’s Office also dropped a third misdemeanor.
“I want to convey my sincere apology to all the citizens of Boca Raton for my actions and any negative light that my case cast upon our city,” Haynie said in a statement to residents.
“Throughout my personal and professional career, I have prided myself on taking responsibility for my conduct and performance,” she said.
“The citizens of Boca Raton should accept nothing less than the highest level of ethics from their elected officials. I failed to live up to that standard and today, accepted responsibility by entering my guilty plea.”
Haynie, 66, will be on probation for 12 months but will serve no jail time.
She cannot seek public office during probation. But even after that, Haynie said, her political career is at an end.
Bruce Zimet, Haynie’s criminal defense attorney, said the decision to accept a plea deal “was made because there was a reasonable offer from the State Attorney’s Office.”
That offer, he said, eliminated counts that alleged corruption.
“She never would plead to a felony or misdemeanor involving any allegation of corruption,” Zimet said. “This was framed as a quid pro quo case, and that never happened. Any plea deal that involved that would be a total nonstarter.
“There was no corruption from her,” he said. “Her vote was never sold.”
Chief Assistant State Attorney Alan Johnson said Haynie “could have been convicted on each and every one of these charges.”
Yet he did not dispute Zimet’s assertion that Haynie never sold her vote. “There was no indication there was any kind of bribe or quid pro quo for her votes,” Johnson said.
A number of factors prompted him to reach out to Zimet to see if a plea deal could be worked out, Johnson said.
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the court system to a crawl, serious felony cases are backlogged and Haynie’s case likely would not have gone to trial for many more months.
Haynie has been out of office for nearly three years, and was willing to forgo future political roles. And while Haynie failed to report significant amounts of income on financial disclosure forms, it was not clear that corrupt intent was the reason, he said.
“To put some closure on a case that is old and getting older, to a person who was no longer in office, I thought this was an appropriate and just resolution,” Johnson said. “She will always have this on her record.”
It was also important, he said, that Haynie “accepted responsibility. That was a major factor in resolving the case.”
Al Zucaro, a Haynie adversary who lost to her in the 2017 mayoral race, filed complaints about her to both the Palm Beach County and state ethics commissions that led to investigations by those bodies and then by the State Attorney’s Office. He also provided information to prosecutors.
Yet he had no objection to the plea deal.
“I have no problem with how this resolved itself,” he said. “Susan Haynie paid dearly for what was a self-induced error. Her political career ended because of it. I don’t see any utility to require her to suffer any more.”
Zucaro said his opposition research during the 2017 campaign uncovered Haynie’s failure to report income. When her campaign team sent out mailers about him that he termed “character assassination,” he shared what he knew with ethics officials and prosecutors. But they were the ones who found solid evidence of criminal behavior, he said.
Shortly after the election, Zucaro dropped out of politics and ended his BocaWatch blog.
In charging documents, prosecutors contended that Haynie used her position on the City Council to vote on four matters that financially benefited James Batmasian, the city’s largest downtown commercial landowner, and concealed income she received from him.
The investigation found that Haynie failed to report $335,000 in income on financial disclosure forms, including $84,000 from Batmasian or his company Investments Limited, from 2014 through 2017.
The payments went to a property management company formed by Haynie and her husband, Neil, that managed a large apartment complex where a majority of units were owned by Batmasian and his wife, Marta. Marta Batmasian signed the checks that went to the management company.
The property management company also was paid at least $64,000 by Investments Limited in 2016 and 2017 for installing security cameras at several properties owned by the Batmasians.
Haynie did not divulge that income when she voted on matters benefiting the Batmasians, investigators said.
Three of the now-dismissed official misconduct felony counts alleged Haynie falsified financial disclosure forms and did not disclose her compensation by the Batmasians and their businesses.
The fourth dismissed felony charge, for perjury, accused her of lying in testimony to county and state ethics investigators.
The dismissed misdemeanor, corrupt misuse of official position, was for four votes on matters that benefited the Batmasians while she was being paid by them.
Haynie pleaded guilty to misuse of public office and failure to disclose voting conflicts for those same votes.
Before her arrest, the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics reached a settlement with her in which she was reprimanded and fined for failing to disclose a conflict of interest. A second allegation that Haynie misused her public office was dismissed.
The Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Haynie violated state ethics laws in eight instances, but that case has been on hold while the criminal case proceeded.
The state commission said that Haynie failed to disclose income, acted to financially benefit herself and her husband, and improperly voted on matters that benefited the Batmasians without disclosing a conflict of interest.
Commission advocate Elizabeth A. Miller minced no words in a stinging 2018 report to the commission.
Haynie “consistently voted on measures benefiting the Batmasians and/or their affiliates between 2012 and 2016 while surreptitiously reaping the financial rewards of their business association,” she wrote. “When confronted with the possibility of impropriety (Haynie) consistently denied any association, involvement or knowledge. The bank account records revealed her deception. These acts and omissions indicate a corrupt intent.”
Kerrie Stillman, a spokeswoman for the state ethics commission, said the criminal case outcome has no bearing on the ethics case.
In instances where probable cause has been found, the commission must either hold a full evidentiary hearing, or the commission advocate and Haynie’s ethics attorney could reach a settlement agreement, Stillman said.
But the commission’s role is now limited. Its power to seek her removal from office is moot. It also can impose fines up to a maximum of $10,000 per violation.
While much investigatory effort has been directed at Haynie’s votes on matters involving Batmasian, Johnson acknowledges that Haynie was not paid for them.
The investigation found at least two additional votes beyond the four outlined in the charging documents.
But prosecutors did not pursue those because the statute of limitations had expired, Johnson said.
The six votes were uncontroversial at the time, and the City Council approved all but one of the matters unanimously or near-unanimously.
Haynie’s vote made a difference in only one minor instance. In an appeal to the City Council of a Community Appearance Board denial of the approval of two signs, the council reversed the CAB’s decision by a 3-2 vote on Jan. 10, 2017, with Haynie in the majority.
But her effort to get the blessing of the county ethics commission to vote on matters involving Batmasian have raised eyebrows.
City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser obtained an informal opinion from the commission in 2011 that Haynie had no conflict of interest in voting on Batmasian matters. In 2013, Haynie asked her to seek a formal written opinion.
A draft opinion found Haynie could vote but included a recommendation that she abstain based on an “appearance of impropriety.”
Frieser told the commission that recommendation was not warranted. More back-and-forth followed over five months until the final opinion determined Haynie could vote.
But the opinion was narrowly written and was based on a specific instance in which Batmasian was neither the applicant nor the developer of a project coming to the council for approval.
Mark Bannon, the ethics commission’s executive director, has said Haynie should have understood the opinion to mean she should not vote when Batmasian was the applicant or developer.
Two City Council members at the time, including now-County Commissioner Robert Weinroth, were critical of how Frieser handled on Haynie’s behalf the request for an ethics opinion. Weinroth said Frieser was “aggressive” in pressing for an opinion that allowed Haynie to vote.
Frieser denied that she sought an outcome that favored Haynie, and said she had done nothing that altered the conclusion in the draft and final opinions that Haynie could vote.
Haynie has maintained a low profile since her arrest, and her only public comment was the statement of contrition after the plea deal.
“She plans to move forward and put all this behind her,” Zimet said when asked about Haynie’s plans. “She is a vibrant person who has a lot to offer her community. She plans to enjoy her life in the years to come.”