The Politics of Pop

Pepsi pays Jeff Koons big bucks to lobby for its causes. And the West Palm Beach city commissioner is worth every cent.

When a visitor arrives, West Palm Beach City Commissioner Jeff Koons drops the newspaper he's been reading, stands up, and shakes hands like a politician on the campaign trail, even though he was reelected just a few months ago. He suddenly announces: "We have an errand to run."

Hurrying toward the elevator on the fifth floor of West Palm Beach City Hall, he's headed to one of his favorite places in the city: the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden, of which he's a board member. In the hallway he runs into a bearded man, whom he treats like an old friend. He's Don Cochran, the city's infrastructure operations manager.

Koons says just one word, "Cordova," emphasizing each syllable. He's referring to a street in a quaint neighborhood in the southeast section of the city. Koons tells Cochran that he recently saw a road crew in the neighborhood, repairing the many dips in the road. They fixed the smaller ones, he says, but they missed the bigger ones.

"We've got good 'traffic calming' on Cordova," Koons jokes as they step into the elevator. The technical term to which he refers applies to cars that must slow for traffic bumps in parking lots. In other words, Koons' joke is also a hint, one Cochran has picked up on. He tells Koons that he'll see to his request.

Koons has good reason to be concerned about Cordova Street. It's where his girlfriend, Sherry Lee, lives.

This little demonstration of Koons' backroom talents is apropos for today's visit this May afternoon. Last November he and his wife, Mary Louise, divorced after 23 years of marriage. But the divorce, and the fact that Koons is doing a favor for his girlfriend, pale in comparison to what he admitted, under oath, during the divorce proceedings. Koons says he'll talk about all that, but first he must get to the sculpture garden, where he recently planted some small palm trees. They need to be watered.

Koons has plenty of explaining to do. During the divorce proceedings, his father, Bud, eliminated his son's $500,000 job as vice president of field operations for the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach. The Riviera Beach-based bottler is owned by the elder Koons' $165 million company, Central Investment Corporation (CIC), for which Jeff Koons worked for 28 years. Bud Koons would not speak to New Times for this article, and his son claims that he is simply on a "leave of absence."

Whatever his status with the company now, Koons admitted, in deposition and during the divorce trial, that he has used his $16,000-a-year job as a city commissioner to reap financial benefits for Pepsi. He explained that he's done dozens of political favors on the company's behalf.

Case in point: In early January 1997, Philip Arvidson, his boss at the bottler, left him a voice mail message asking for help in securing funding for a $60 million convention center to be built in West Palm Beach. In deposition Koons said that Arvidson told him Pepsi customers in the hotel-and-motel industry were worried because, after months of discussion, government funding for the center still wasn't available. The center, which has yet to be approved, is considered an integral part of an ongoing redevelopment program in West Palm Beach. If it's built, the argument goes, it's sure to attract tourists, who will pack existing hotels and create a demand for more. More hotels means more contracts for Pepsi. And who better to help secure public funding for the center than a city commissioner who happens to work for Pepsi?

Koons went to work for Arvidson by putting together a team of lobbyists, city staff, and county officials who headed to Tallahassee in May 1997. They lobbied the state legislature for an additional penny tax on hotels to help pay for the center. The proposal didn't fly that year, and Koons' position at Pepsi was eliminated by his father a month later. But, in the fall of 1997, Koons traveled once again to Tallahassee.

One of the state representatives with whom he met was Sharon Merchant (R-North Palm Beach), who says she assumed Koons was lobbying on behalf of West Palm Beach. He never mentioned his relationship with Pepsi, which continues to make him money -- in the form of a trust fund set up by Bud Koons. With Merchant's help the state legislature passed a bill in April that would fund the center with an existing tax.

There are political hurdles on the city and county levels to be overcome before the center is approved, but Koons accomplished exactly what his former boss at Pepsi requested. In deposition Koons referred to a letter sent to him after the bill was passed: "The manager of the Sheraton Hotel said, 'I really appreciate everything that your company has done and everything you've done individually on this.'"

Koons even explained how his efforts would help Pepsi down the road. "The other side benefit [of helping the hotel owners]," he noted, "is that, potentially, when they're looking for the companies that would be available [for] selling the beverages -- that if it comes to 'even steven' -- they're going to go with Pepsi, because they know in the long range that's a company that basically helped secure the convention center."

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