James Batmasian’s complicated legacy

At 75, developer, philanthropist and pardoned felon defends his record

James Batmasian (Photo-illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal; Alamy)
James Batmasian (Photo-illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal; Alamy)

James Batmasian was ready to give most of his wealth away. 

In 2019, the real estate investor and developer applied to join a campaign established by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that encourages the world’s wealthiest people to contribute the majority of their riches to philanthropic causes of their choosing. 

Three years later, his photo still isn’t among the more than 150 signatories listed on The Giving Pledge’s website. Organizers told him last year that his application was under review, according to court filings. 

To Batmasian, it was a familiar story. Florida Atlantic University declined his $1 million check to boost the school’s real estate program. In 2014, then-Gov. Rick Scott abruptly canceled a planned fundraiser at Batmasian’s home. Even a nonprofit that Batmasian founded to help the homeless booted him from its board of directors, according to court records. 

Although not explicitly stated, the message was clear: No one who wants to keep a clean reputation wants anything to do with a convicted felon. 

Batmasian is one of the largest private real estate owners in Boca Raton, where he and his wife, Marta, settled in 1983 and founded their firm, Investments Limited. The two are major South Florida benefactors, starting and helming numerous charities as well as cultural and educational organizations.

But in 2008, Batmasian pleaded guilty to evading $250,000 in payroll taxes and served an eight-month prison sentence that ended the following year. 

It was a simple scheme, prosecutors said, amounting to carrying some employees off the books without deducting or collecting Social Security and Medicare taxes. 

The case “presents a modern-day tragedy,” prosecutor Jeffrey Kay wrote in a sentencing memo. “The defendant was well respected in his community, a philanthropist, family man, who now finds himself before this court.” 

It’s a dichotomy that has followed Batmasian for much of the last decade, and one he seems eager to leave behind. 

Friends and business associates have nothing but praise for his real estate acumen and philanthropy. But court records, including now-dismissed lawsuits brought by ex-employees, paint Batmasian as a toxic boss who oversaw a hostile workplace that allowed for sexual harassment. 

Batmasian has steadfastly denied the allegations and chalked up the tax charge to a clerical error by his bookkeeper.

I just signed checks,” he said.

Because the employees were paid through a family bank account, the feds threatened to go after Marta and their sons, he claimed, so he pleaded guilty to prevent repercussions on his family.

It was kind of an easy decision to take one for the team,” he said. “No big deal.” 

But over the years, Batmasian has attempted to bury the civil and criminal records. He pushed to keep two high-profile lawsuits by former employees sealed and sued to stop The Palm Beach Post from publishing a story on one of them. Each effort was ultimately unsuccessful. 

His quest to dull the sting of the tax evasion case partially paid off in 2020, when he received a presidential pardon from Donald Trump. But he wants the case gone altogether. Last year, his attorney filed a notice of appeal to seal or expunge the record. That’s still pending and a hearing is coming up, Batmasian said. 

I want to clean the record up because I really didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. 

But sealing this or other lawsuits that have been brought against him won’t erase the cases from memory. By now they permeate the public domain through, among other things, widespread news coverage. It’s a history of legal woes that threatens to cast a shadow over the 75-year-old’s legacy. 

Easy come, easy go?

Living and working in a place where there’s no shame in ostentatious displays of wealth, Batmasian is in some ways the antithesis of South Florida. 

By his own estimate, he owns four pairs of pants and eight shirts. His Investments Limited has long been based out of a two-story yellow building with a barrel-tiled roof in Boca Raton that Batmasian bought for $1 million in 1984. He mostly dines at home, he said, and spends much of his time on charities such as Propel, a nonprofit for underprivileged children he started 24 years ago.

He is probably one of the most successful real estate investors that is not as well-known,” said Malcolm Butters, president of commercial real estate firm Butters Group and a friend of Batmasian. 

Investments Limited’s portfolio, which spans 4 million square feet and 4,000 apartments, has been painstakingly accumulated since the 1970s, when Batmasian purchased his first apartment building in Somerville, Massachusetts, near Harvard University, where he was working toward a law degree and an MBA. 

Struggling to pay his rent and saddled with student loans, he bought a three-story house, lived in one of the units and rented out the others. To afford the property’s $20,000 price tag, he borrowed $16,000 from a bank, got $3,500 in seller financing and put $500 on credit cards. 

Batmasian built his real estate empire on overlooked properties. Among his earliest purchases in Boca Raton was a largely vacant retail plaza with mold and Visqueen-covered windows that two larger investors had decided not to close on, he said. He and Marta spruced it up, and today Royal Palm Place is a major shopping destination with 200 apartments. He is now planning to add a 144-key extended-stay hotel to the complex. 

His recent deals have continued a trend of buying small: $15.5 million for a 117,000-square-foot industrial portfolio in Palm Beach County, $17 million for a shopping center in Deerfield Beach anchored by a Walmart Neighborhood Market. 

He also bought a fractured condo in Boca Raton, the sort of purchase many investors are wary of, said Douglas Mandel, a broker who has represented Batmasian in deals for 15 years. 

If he wanted to tear the building down, he couldn’t do that. He has restrictions, and most people who buy real estate don’t want restrictions,” Mandel said. “He is willing to overlook things.”

During an interview at Batmasian’s office, an employee walked in showing him properties coming up for tax deed sales, saying they were going for $400,000. 

Don’t start there,” Batmasian told the staffer, instructing him to first bid less. “You grab real estate any way you could grab it,” he said once the employee had left his office. 

His thrifty ways are rooted in his childhood. As a preteen in New Jersey, he ran sewer pipes from houses his father built and dug outflow holes for 35 cents an hour. Other gigs included shoveling snow, mowing lawns and growing and selling vegetables, he said.

That frugal approach hasn’t always endeared Batmasian to other local real estate players. Neil Merin, chair of West Palm Beach-based NAI Merin Hunter Codman, remembers a meeting with Batmasian in 1986, when the two were considering partnering up. 

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Some maintenance man was walking past his office, and he stopped to give the guy a verbal lashing because he bought a $5 shovel from Home Depot without getting it approved,” Merin said. 

Batmasian specializes in “junky old properties,” according to Merin, maintaining them but not bringing them up to date. But others pushed back on the idea that Batmasian is always frugal with his investments.  

He is a gambler and always comes out winning,” said Joseph Falso, who led construction at Investments Limited for a decade. “He fixes [properties] up and they become winners.”

Something everyone, including Batmasian, agrees on is that he is no seller. Even the Massachusetts buildings he purchased a half-century ago are still his, he said.  

In 2017, he put 33 buildings with 444 apartments in the Boston area on the market for $166 million, the Boston Globe reported. 

Every seven years he puts his portfolio for sale at an unreasonable price, gets a lot of people excited and then he doesn’t sell,” Carl Valeri, who was then the president of Boston-based real estate firm Hamilton Company, told TRD. 

Batmasian still regrets selling some houses years ago for $29,000, as they are now going for $3.2 million. Selling has been his “biggest mistake,” he said. 

Mr. B and the boys

Batmasian often opens interviews with the story of his Armenian grandfather, Harutun Batmasian, escaping persecution in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century and settling in Ireland. 

To Falso, Batmasian was a boss who came in to work in the morning, shut the door to his office, took a knee and said a prayer. 

Karla Sotomayor, an ex-staffer who worked in leasing, described a different man in court filings: a boss with a “voracious sexual appetite” who ran a hostile work environment.

From roughly 2014 to 2018, the Batmasians were frequently in court, fighting  lawsuits brought by ex-staff members and sitting through hearings in which they were described as anything but holy. 

In her 2014 complaint, Sotomayor said she was directed to rent properties to massage parlors offering sexual services, which Batmasian and his friends allegedly patronized in exchange for rent reductions. Sotomayor also claimed he was romantically interested in her, an allegation Batmasian called bullshit.”

Another former employee’s lawsuit, which reiterated Sotomayor’s claims, cited exhibits of lewd text messages sent by a Mr. B, allegedly Batmasian, including cartoons of sex acts. Batmasian told a local publication in 2015 that he never sent the texts and that they were forwarded to him by others. 

A third lawsuit, from former Investments Limited chief financial officer James Baker, who married Sotomayor in 2014, claimed Batmasian continued to demand employees be booked as independent contractors even after serving his prison time for tax evasion. Baker said he worked roughly 65 hours a week, including Saturdays. 

In fighting the suits, Batmasian denied what he called sensational allegations, saying they were merely attempts to squeeze him for money. The Batmasians had sued Baker first, alleging that he took company trade secrets and other information in an attempt to aid Sotomayor’s case against the firm. 

Both lawsuits, as well as the allegations the Batmasians levied against Baker and Sotomayor, ended in 2018 following joint stipulations of dismissal. 

Circumstances surrounding the dismissals are unknown. Sotomayor could not be reached for comment, and Baker declined to comment. Their attorney, Chris Kleppin, didn’t return requests for comment. 

The dismissals came hours before former Boca Mayor Susan Haynie was criminally charged with accepting undisclosed income while in office, including from Batmasian, whose projects she voted on. Last year, she pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for misuse of public office and failure to disclose voting conflicts, and served no jail time. Prosecutors dropped felony charges and a perjury count, and her attorney maintained that her vote “was never for sale.” 

Falso, who himself sued the Batmasians after leaving Investments Limited in 2012, alleging he was still owed over $1 million, also dropped his case after both sides chose to settle. Although he didn’t provide details, he offered a hint. 

Don’t ever sue anybody who has more money than you. They can hold out longer,” Falso said, adding he and Batmasian still are friends. 

Jim didn’t make his money giving it away.” 

A complicated legacy  

When Batmasian joined Solid Rock Christian Church in Boca Raton two years ago, some in the congregation were aware of his legal issues. 

Kathy Guadagnino, one of the church’s two pastors along with her husband, Joe, recalled Batmasian telling the story of how he and Marta built their real estate empire.

All of us were dumbfounded because everybody has heard different things,” she said. “Somebody said, ‘I need to repent some things that I have thought about this man.’”

Every Saturday, Batmasian’s nonprofit Changing Lives meets at another church to provide people experiencing homelessness with anything from haircuts and showers to clothes and food.

A lot of people just throw money at it, but his heart is there,” Joe Guadagnino said. “He sits with the homeless. He helps them find jobs.”

Asked how he hopes the community will view him and the inevitability that his legal woes will continue to resurface, Batmasian quoted Clark Gable’s character in “Gone with the Wind.” 

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” 

Returning a call after his initial meeting with TRD, he said he regretted consenting to an interview, because he doesn’t want the story to hurt his family. 

I’ve lived a pretty decent life,” he said. “The positive definitely outweighs anything else. That’s [what] I’d like my kids and grandkids to remember.”