Joseph Cranney , email@example.com; 239-213-6035Published 5:44 p.m. ET Feb. 24, 2017 | Updated 6:19 p.m. ET Feb. 24, 2017
A federal judge should void the Naples City Council’s approval of a controversial redevelopment after Councilman Sam Saad voted for the project without disclosing a conflict of interest, a group of Naples residents argued in a court filing Friday.
River Park residents suing the city for approving a 7-Eleven project near their neighborhood claim in a new complaint that Saad should have abstained from voting because of his private business relationship with the real estate investment group that was selling the property.
“It is Plaintiffs’ position that Mr. Saad had a conflict of interest, whether direct or indirect,” the 22 plaintiffs state in the amended complaint. “And that he failed to disclose the conflict of interest and failed to abstain from the vote.”
Saad cast a deciding vote in the council’s 4-3 approval of the project last May.
The plaintiffs in Friday’s filing cited Naples Daily News reporting done last year, which detailed Saad’s relationship with the New York-based Axonic Capital investment group that owned the proposed 7-Eleven property at the corner of Fifth Avenue North and Goodlette-Frank Road.
“Mr. Saad had ongoing and contractual business relationships with the corporate principals of companies who have been actively acquiring and managing other real estate holdings in River Park East, as well as other real estate holdings in Collier County, a relationship which Mr. Saad knew financially benefitted him, his business and the principals,” the complaint states.
Saad violated ethics laws preventing elected officials from voting on projects offered by petitioners with whom the official has an ongoing business relationship, the plaintiffs argued.
Reached by phone, Saad said the plaintiffs’ claims have “no merit.”
“I didn’t violate the ethics ordinance,” Saad said. “They can file whatever they want, but that’s not going anywhere.”
The plaintiffs originally filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers last July, claiming the project would violate their civil rights under the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
U.S. Judge John E. Steele, overseeing the case, could rule on the merits of the alleged ethics violation if the claim survives the city’s eventual response, said Jim Fox, the city’s lawyer.
The plaintiffs in Friday's filing asked Steele to order the city's approval of the 7-Eleven project "void and unenforceable" because of Saad's actions.
Steele in December denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. Demolition crews cleared the site this month.
The new complaint doesn’t include attachments but references a Daily News article published in November.
The Daily News reported that Saad is a longtime business partner with Matt Pikus, who is also the broker and property manager for the Axonic group that sold the 7-Eleven property. Saad’s law firm also did legal work for the group before and after he voted for the 7-Eleven project.
Saad has said he no longer has a relationship with Axonic after a falling out with the group’s portfolio manager, Jonathan Shechtman. But as recently as December, Saad’s law firm has handled evictions at Axonic-owned properties where Pikus works as the property manager.
Friday’s filing mentions Saad’s eviction work for the group, which was first reported by the Daily News in December.
“The court record in one 2016 eviction case contains a management agreement between Mr. Shechtman’s company and Mr. Pikus’ company, so Mr. Saad’s firm knew or should have known about the connection,” the complaint states.
Saad, Pikus and Shechtman all have a “recurring” business relationship, the plaintiffs argued.
“This created a conflict between Mr. Saad’s private interests and the performance of his public duties,” the complaint states.