Batmasian real estate empire in unwanted glare of Boca mayor probe

Marta and Jim Batmasian the Boca Raton Regional Hospital Ball at the Boca Raton Resort and Club on Feb. 3. (Jeffrey A. Graves / Courtesy)

When state prosecutors brought corruption charges this week against Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, they asserted that the beneficiaries of her alleged wrongdoing were among the most prolific owners of commercial real estate in Palm Beach County.

Through the years, James and Marta Batmasian have become the landlords of many of the popular places where local residents eat, shop and play. They are benefactors for numerous nonprofits and charities, giving generously of their time and money. Yet they have been embroiled in years of litigation with former employees, and now find themselves in the glare of a high-profile public corruption probe.

Several businesses belonging to the Batmasians benefited from favorable City Commission votes cast by the mayor, state authorities allege. According to a detective’s affidavit filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court by the Office of Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, the mayor voted four times in favor of resolutions supporting requests involving signage, the use of city owned parking spaces, and the rezoning of a property owned by a Batmasian-controlled company.

Authorities alleged, “Susan Haynie failed to disclose income she received from the developer, James Batmasian, while conducting business with him and his companies through a company she owned with her husband,” Neil Haynie.

Neither of the Batmasians has been charged with a crime, and neither could be reached for comment. The State Attorney’s Office declined to elaborate on the charges made public in court.

Published reports have placed the value of the Batmasians’ holdings above $100 million. Dozens of their properties are listed as limited liability corporations in Florida state corporate records. Most of them are listed as having the same address as the couple’s principal company, Investments Limited, at 215 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. The company, according to a Bloomberg profile, “operates as a real estate investment, ownership, development, operations, management, and leasing organization in South Florida and Massachusetts.”

According to a “Message From The Founders” on the Investments Limited website, the Batmasians have worked together in real estate investing since 1970, when they were graduate students in Cambridge, Mass. Principally, they invested in small residential buildings.

The message notes that James Batmasian is a 1965 graduate of Coral Gables Senior High School who earned an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MBA and a law degree from Harvard University. A native of Turkey, Marta Batmasian graduated cum laude from Emerson College in Boston with a bachelor’s degree in English. She studied comparative and English literature at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and has a doctor of philosophy in Near Eastern studies from Brandeis University, as well as an MBA.

The couple moved to Boca Raton in 1983 with the intention of “enjoying an early retirement,” the company website says. “After two days, they changed their plans and began pursuing a future based on investing in the South Florida lifestyle.

“At a time when many of our coastal communities were being overlooked by serious investors — seen as nothing more than spring break retreats and retirement havens — the Batmasians had the foresight to begin investing in local shopping centers (amassing more than 36 properties within their first 33 months). And today they are among the largest landowners in the city.”

The founders’ narrative makes no mention of whether banks, private investors or a combination of the two helped finance their acquisitions. But they say they’ve focused on leasing to increase revenues, expanded by “re-tenanting existing locations at competitive market rates,” and added mixed-use elements to their portfolio. They say a number of tenants bear prominent national and regional names such as Publix, CVS, McDonald’s, GNC, Pet Supermarket, Allstate, H&R Block and Sally Beauty Supply.

One of their most prominent holdings: The Royal Palm Place shopping center in downtown Boca Raton.

While building their business portfolio, the Batmasians enhanced their public profile by becoming heavily involved in South Florida charitable causes. In 2004, they were the principal founders of PROPEL (People Reaching Out to Provide Education and Leadership), said Gregg Francis, CEO of the organization.

For the Batmasians, “it’s a labor of love,” he said. “It’s not a rubber stamp. They truly devote time and resources.”

Francis said the organization was formed to provide an after-school “safe haven” for underprivileged children who live on the fringes of the justice system. But since 2014, it has become more “educationally centric,” providing rides to and from schools, meals and pathways to literacy and proficiency in mathematics. Recently, he said, five teenagers in the program won scholarships to attend Florida Atlantic University.

The couple have been involved in other nonprofit endeavors. According to her LinkedIn account, Marta Batmasian has served on the boards of the Boca Raton Symphonic Pops, Caldwell Theatre and Tri-County Humane Society. She works with the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research in Massachusetts and the Fund for Armenia’s Relief in New York.

She and her husband have sponsored events by the Junior League of Boca Raton.

Once, Boca Raton Magazine included both of them on a list of “100 People You Should Know.”

Despite the successful build-out of their business and involvement in the community, the couple had rocky times, including a major encounter with the law by James Batmasian.

In 2008, he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach to a single count of failing to pay $253,513 in federal withholding tax for employees at Investments Limited. He served eight months in a South Carolina federal prison. Later, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the suspension of his Florida law license. He remains ineligible to practice law in the state, according to The Florida Bar.

The tax charge aside, there were other problems at Investments Limited. In 2014, Karla Sotomayor, a former leasing agent, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against James Batmasian. The same year, James Baker, a former chief financial officer who had been fired in 2013, filed a whistleblower suit against the company alleging various acts of fraud. The suit was filed after the Batmasians sued him for allegedly stealing company information.

However, a short time before Haynie was charged by state authorities, all of the litigation as swept away this week as judges dismissed the cases under joint agreements by the parties. Attorneys in the cases did not respond to requests for comment.

It remains unclear what awaits the Batmasians as the state’s criminal prosecution unfolds against Haynie.

In November, in the wake of a detailed investigative report by the Palm Beach Post into alleged financial ties between the Batmasians and a business operated by the mayor’s husband, Marta Batmasian denied she and James Batmasian received favors from the city.

“We didn’t know it was going to develop to this level,” she told television station WPTV-Ch. 5 in an interview. “And we didn’t really see any conflict because we appear in front [of] the council the last 35 years and it’s never been an issue. This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone.”

Staff writer Marci Shatzman contributed to this report.

David Lyons can be reached at 954-356-4340, dvlyons@sun-sentinel.com twitter: @davidvlyons

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