The Florida Commission on Ethics is expected to vote Friday on a complaint filed against Naples Councilman Sam Saad alleging he violated state ethics laws by voting for a controversial real estate development involving his business associates.
At the 10 a.m. closed-door hearing in the third floor courtroom of Tallahassee’s First District Court of Appeal, the nine-member ethics panel is set to address, for the first time, the question of whether Saad broke the law.
If the panel finds probable cause, the commission would advance the case to a Florida administrative judge for further review at an evidentiary hearing, similar to a trial and open to the public. The panel at Friday’s hearing could also dismiss the complaint against Saad.
Saad refused to address the hearing in a phone interview Tuesday. He declined to answer questions, then hung up.
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He has denied violating ethics laws. Speaking from the dais at a council meeting on Oct. 16, he suggested the dispute is bogus.
“This is a spurious campaign to denigrate me and my record,” he said.
Friday’s hearing marks the most significant step yet in the process that began in March when Saad’s colleague Councilwoman Linda Penniman filed a state complaint against him.
Her allegations came in the wake of Naples Daily News reporting that detailed Saad’s business relationships with the local managers of a New York real estate investment group that has bought several properties in the low-income River Park neighborhood.
Saad in May 2016 joined his fellow council members in a 4-3 approval of a proposal for the New York-based Axonic Capital group to sell one of its River Park commercial properties to 7-Eleven as part of a redevelopment.
Saad’s law firm handled evictions at properties owned by Axonic before and after he cast his vote for the project, the Daily News reported. Axonic’s property manager and broker, Matt Pikus, also partners with Saad in real estate investments elsewhere in Collier County, the Daily News reported.
Before the May 2016 vote, Saad told City Attorney Bob Pritt that Pikus would not get a commission on the sale of the River Park property. But Saad did not disclose — to Pritt or to the public — the details of his relationship with Pikus, or his legal work for Axonic portfolio manager Jonathan Shechtman, which dated to at least 2012.
Saad acknowledged the more than a dozen 2012 legal transactions his law firm or title company handled for Axonic, but he said he severed his relationship with Shechtman because of personal differences.
“I got into a personal issue with Shechtman and said, ‘I’ll have nothing to do with you people,’ ” Saad told the Daily News.
Despite that assurance, Saad in private emails sought to meet for drinks with Shechtman and Pikus the night before the May 2016 vote on the River Park property, the Daily News reported in October.
Saad, in a friendly exchange, told Shechtman he wanted to discuss River Park, the emails show.
“I just wanted to catch up on what your plans were,” Saad wrote to Shechtman and Pikus.
They planned to meet on a Tuesday night after Shechtman drove to Naples from the East Coast.
“Text me when you’re close,” Saad emailed.
Rachael Loukonen, a Naples lawyer for Saad in the ethics dispute, told the Daily News in October the meeting didn’t occur. Instead, Loukonen said, Saad talked by phone with Pikus.
Penniman said the emails, which her lawyer obtained through a public records request, are part of a batch of documents she turned over to a Florida Commission on Ethics investigator in the fall.
If the Saad case goes to an administrative judge, the judge’s recommendation would go back to the ethics panel for a final decision and possible fine of up to $10,000. The panel may also recommend suspension or removal from office by the governor.
The panel at Friday’s hearing will consider a 10-minute presentation from a commission prosecutor on the results of the preliminary investigation into Saad’s complaint, according to a one-page notice for the hearing. Saad will have 10 minutes to respond.
The hearing prohibits the calling of witnesses or the introduction of new evidence.
Florida officials faced 180 state ethics complaints in 2017, 46 of them against municipal elected officials, newly released commission records show.