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.

As soon as Koons has watered the palm trees, and after he's waxed poetic about the sculpture garden, he agrees to return to city hall to finally talk, on the record, about his divorce and the fallout. He settles into a chair in the commissioners' conference room and smiles when he's asked whether he considers his convention-center lobbying efforts a conflict of interest.

"I feel confident that I haven't done anything with a conflict of interest," he says. "But if the side benefits [of my actions] went to Pepsi, that's fine."

Koons' testimony under oath reveals the following. His full-time job at the Pepsi-Cola bottler consisted of using political connections to benefit Pepsi. Those connections were fostered by Bud Koons, who groomed his son to become a lobbyist for Pepsi and various soft-drink interests in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. In 1989, when Koons became a city commissioner, Pepsi gained direct access to some of Palm Beach County's most influential political players. Although the recent divorce has strained the father-son relationship, Jeff Koons continues to work on the company's behalf.

Reminded of his testimony, Koons -- wearing sneakers, work pants, and a white polo shirt emblazoned with his name and political title -- doodles on a piece of paper. It's not surprising. He may be 50 years old, and his brown hair may be thinning and showing signs of gray, but otherwise Koons exudes a youthful demeanor.

As he continues to draw, he repeats that he's done nothing wrong, that his actions have helped both his constituents and Pepsi. He then slides his drawing, featuring four dark circles, across the table. "See these circles?" he asks, rhetorically. "Sometimes in politics you have to go where it overlaps."

While the circles in Koons' drawing don't literally overlap, his public and private interests certainly do. The help he gave Spanky's Sports Bar is a good example. Aside from alcoholic beverages, the popular West Palm Beach tavern serves only Pepsi products. In early 1997 owner Tony Simons wanted to have a wall-size mural painted on a side of the building that is visible from Clematis Street, a major road running through the heart of the city's bar-and-restaurant district. City code, however, prohibits billboard-size advertising on buildings. Simons mentioned the problem to Pepsi.

"That was a big Pepsi account," Koons said in deposition. "They called me to see if I could work on it."

Well-versed in the nuances of city code, Koons called Bill Fountain, who, as executive director of the West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority, was representing Spanky's at the time. Koons suggested that Simons refer to the mural as "art," as opposed to advertising, so that it wouldn't be subject to the zoning regulation. Simons did just that, and the mural's design was rubber-stamped by the city's volunteer-run Art in Public Places Committee.

What the committee considers "art" is titled "Spanky's Wall of Fame," which features pastel-colored renderings of many sports heroes, including Dan Marino and Hank Aaron. Dwarfing these figures, however, is a fifteen-foot-tall Pepsi bottle with a label that reads: "Sparkling Pepsi." Should anyone walking down Clematis miss the bottle, a blond, blue-eyed surfer riding a huge wave holds a five-foot can of Pepsi in his outstretched hand.

City Commissioner Al Zucaro says the mural is art. After all, he says in defense of Koons, if Andy Warhol can call a Campbell's Soup can art, why can't Spanky's do the same with Pepsi?

But Koons, who sits on the boards of the sculpture garden, the Armory Art Center, and the Norton Museum of Art, isn't as eager to settle the debate. When asked whether the mural is or isn't art, he smiles sheepishly, shakes his head, and says: "I would've helped [Spanky's] on a Coke bottle. It didn't really matter."

In deposition, however, Koons indicated that the mural was more than just free advertising for Pepsi. He said that Simons was so pleased with the outcome that, whenever a new restaurant moves into the area, he'll suggest that they too sign a contract with Pepsi.

"There is probably ten new restaurants in downtown West Palm Beach, and the large percentage of them have Pepsi-Cola," Koons said. "And they know that with Pepsi-Cola they were getting a company that was involved in the community, and gave really good service, and could help them with any particular issues that they had."

As bold as he was under oath, Koons won't admit today to helping Pepsi at all. In fact, over the course of three interviews with New Times, he offered at least as many versions of the Spanky's story. As far as Simons is concerned, however, one thing is for sure: "He's a great guy. He was instrumental in helping us get that Pepsi mural."

Koons' other Pepsi deals aren't nearly as easy to spot. For example, when Palm Beach Atlantic College (PBAC) was planning to build a 16,000-square-foot athletic center in 1996, developers suggested using land adjacent to South Dixie Highway. But the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had already earmarked the site for future road expansion, says Michael Allen, PBAC's chief financial officer. Under oath Koons admitted that he used his position as city commissioner to get the FDOT to grant the college special permission to use the land. He also admitted that PBAC is "one of Pepsi's biggest clients."

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