Joseph Cranney, email@example.com; 239-213-6035Published 6:03 p.m. ET Jan. 24, 2018 | Updated 11:10 p.m. ET Jan. 24, 2018
Naples City Councilman Sam Saad voted to approve a controversial real estate development that included a $24,000 payout to Saad’s business partner, newly released records state.
Saad repeatedly has assured that his partner, Matt Pikus, didn’t benefit from Saad’s vote.
But in a sworn interview, Pikus told an investigator from the Florida Commission on Ethics that his real estate firm collected a $24,750 broker fee after Saad and the council’s 4-3 vote in May 2016.
The council authorized a convenience store and gas station in the River Park neighborhood.
The project included the $1.65 million sale of a retail lot to 7-Eleven. Pikus said he earned his fee representing the seller, a New York-based real estate group that owns several River Park properties.
Florida law prohibits public officials from voting for projects that the official knows would benefit a business associate.
Saad responded to emails Wednesday but did not answer questions.
The Collier County chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint with The Florida Bar against Naples Councilman Sam Saad. Naples Daily News staff
The state ethics commission dismissed a case against Saad last week after a prosecutor advised there was no probable cause that Saad violated the law.
Naples Councilwoman Linda Penniman filed the state complaint against him in March in the wake of Naples Daily News reporting that detailed Saad’s relationship with Pikus.
The ethics prosecutor, Melody A. Hadley from the Office of the Attorney General, also found no probable cause for Penniman's allegations that Saad used his position to benefit a business associate and accepted legal work from Pikus knowing that it would influence his vote.
In documents released Wednesday, Hadley said the case lacked evidence to show Saad knew about the payout to Pikus before the vote.
“A violation requires that (Saad) voted on a measure which he knew would have inured to the special private gain or loss Pikus (sic),” Hadley wrote in her 11-page analysis.
Wednesday’s release of the investigative documents also included new details of Saad’s partnership with Pikus, which dates to at least 2011.
Pikus told the commission he is an owner of PISA Acquisitions LLC, which Saad and Pikus use to invest in real estate. Saad, a real estate attorney, earns 15 percent of the company’s profits in exchange for legal services, Pikus said. The company hasn’t had any transactions since 2014, Pikus said.
Pikus has regularly hired Saad’s law firm for legal work involving Pikus’ property management company. That work includes evictions at properties owned by the New York-based Axonic Capital group, the same company that sold the River Park property as part of the 7-Eleven development.
Pikus paid Saad $12,740 for legal work in 2013, he said. The work totaled $1,108 in 2014. Pikus paid Saad $748 to handle 19 evictions in 2015 and $5,685 to handle five evictions in 2016.
In December 2016, the Daily News reported those five eviction cases came before and after Saad’s vote to approve the 7-Eleven project in May 2016.
Pikus said Saad’s payments spiked in 2016 because two tenants had contested their evictions, leading to more legal work in those cases.
Pikus told an investigator that Saad, in a conversation before the May 2016 vote, didn’t ask Pikus if he would earn a fee on the sale of the River Park property. In his own sworn interview with the investigator, Saad insisted he had asked.
“Although (Saad) does not specifically recall speaking with Mr. Pikus about a sales commission, he stated that he is ‘99 percent’ certain that he asked about a sales commission,” investigator H.B. “Beau” Jackson wrote in his 21-page report. “He reasoned that they discussed a commission because it is an obvious question for him to have asked.”
Those statements, from the investigator’s Oct. 18, 2017, interview are inconsistent with comments Saad gave to the Naples Daily News in an October 2016 interview.
“I don’t know about the commission,” Saad told the Daily News. “I was actually under the impression — but I didn’t ask the specific question — that he was not getting a commission. But I’m not certain.”
In an email before the May 2016 vote, Saad told City Attorney Bob Pritt that Pikus wouldn’t get a commission. Pritt had said Saad “likely” had a voting conflict if Pikus made money on the project.
“If he stands to gain or lose based upon how Council votes, there is likely a conflict,” Pritt wrote to Saad on May 17, 2016, the day before the vote.
“I just found out that 7-11 is buying the property and he is not getting a commission or a management fee so the property manager does not stand to gain or lose on the vote,” Saad wrote back. “Does that help?”
“Yes,” Pritt responded.
Saad later told the Daily News that he didn’t violate state ethics laws because Pikus didn’t benefit from the project.
“The test is whether I or my business partner had a pecuniary interest in the outcome of the vote,” Saad said in October 2016. “The answer to that question is no.”
Rachel Loukonen, a Naples lawyer for Saad, in October 2017 told the Daily News that Saad, in a May 2016 phone call, learned Pikus hadn’t earned a commission.
“Mr. Saad was told to confirm that an entity represented by him or his firm would not be receiving a commission on the sale of the Riverpark (sic) property,” Loukonen said in an email. “Mr. Saad was able to confirm this information in a phone call with Mr. Pikus on May 17.”
Pikus, in his interview with Jackson, the ethics investigator, said he and Saad didn’t discuss his commission and he didn’t know why Saad assured the public that Pikus didn’t earn one.
“I don’t know what would lead him to take it that way,” Pikus told Jackson. “He knew I was a broker, he knew I was a property manager, I don’t know if he knew I was brokering the deal, but I don’t know why that conclusion was drawn.”
Saad told Jackson he had asked Pikus if he would receive “income” from the sale of the River Park property.
“(Saad) said that Mr. Pikus replied that he was not going to receive income,” Jackson wrote in his report. “Therefore, he said, it was his understanding that Mr. Pikus was not going to receive a financial benefit from the transaction, which he said included that Mr. Pikus was not going to receive a commission from the property sale.”
Pikus since 2016 has refused requests from the Daily News to release the closing documents from the River Park sale, which likely would have disclosed the commission Pikus earned. Pikus described the documents as confidential.