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.

Today Koons denies that he helped the college because it's a Pepsi customer. Reminded of his testimony, he simply says: "I'm not familiar with my transcript in court, to be honest with you."

What Koons may or may not be familiar with are the city and state laws regarding unethical behavior. Florida law does not address conflict of interest specifically. It states, however, that any city official who votes on a matter that allows him to receive a special benefit to which no one else is privy is committing an illegal act. If a vote isn't required, an action is deemed illegal if it's committed with "corrupt intent," meaning the city official is aware the action is contrary to the public good.

Legally speaking, terms like "special benefit" and "corrupt intent" are wide-open to interpretation.

"[The state law] is a fuzzy line," says Timothy Lenz, an associate professor of political science and public law at Florida Atlantic University. "There has to be a quid pro quo. That means, literally, 'This for that.' You need to show that someone got something very specific in return for doing something else that was very specific."

The line's not as fuzzy on the local level. The Code of the City of West Palm Beach addresses the issue of "conflict of interest" specifically.

"A conflict of interest exists if the officer... has a substantial financial or personal interest in the outcome... of any matter under consideration before him." The law also states that a city commissioner is not allowed to have a financial interest in a business that would "tend to impair his independence of judgment and action in the performance of his official duties." Punishment for breaking the code is dismissal from office.

West Palm Beach city commissioners are leery of commenting on Koons' potential conflicts of interest. Zucaro said that, although it troubled him to hear that Koons had indicated conflicts of interest under oath, he didn't feel that his colleague's actions had crossed any legal line. Commissioner Joel Daves espoused the commission's prevailing philosophy regarding conflict of any nature.

"I think we believe these things are best left to the voting public to decide," he offered. "We have to face the consequences of what we do."

Friends, family and businesspeople far removed from Koons' political dealings are less ambivalent on the subject. One long-time family friend, a businesswoman who asked not to be identified, claimed that, as a city commissioner, Koons indeed puts Pepsi's interests first.

"Jeff's a real sweet guy," she says. "But some of the things he does put a lot of money in his pocket."

All this talk about conflict of interest sent Koons running to West Palm Beach City Attorney Pat Brown, who reviewed the state statute with him. Brown would not speak on record, but Koons assured New Times that, in his case, no conflict of interest exists. He then asked for one more opportunity to talk in person, to explain his actions and go over the state law, which, as he interprets it, allows him to act in the interest of Palm Beach County's entire business community, Pepsi included.

Meeting with New Times once again, he explains that, as a city commissioner, he sits on several countywide government agencies. Many of those agencies have a vested interest in the convention center, which, if it is built, will attract more hotels to West Palm Beach and provide the city with more jobs. If such economic development is helped by his connection to Pepsi, so be it.

Q: So, what you're saying is that all of Palm Beach County's businesses benefit by the fact that Pepsi wanted to pay you $500,000 a year?

A: Yes, to do serious public work. And my personal opinion is that I did a really good job. I think I'm really good at what I do, and society benefited dramatically from it.

Q: And Pepsi?
A: Yeah, Pepsi as a member of society down here directly benefited from what I do. Sure. They would. I mean, I think our quality of life here in Palm Beach County, since I've been working on this for ten years, has dramatically improved. You know, and maybe we sold some extra Pepsi. Our company here in Palm Beach County is the dominant soft drink here. I'd love to believe I've been working here for 25 years and that's one of the reasons it got that way.

Q: Having said all that, don't you think your work as a city commissioner may have helped Pepsi to become the dominant soft drink in the area?

A: Well, I think people, maybe people were proud of what Jeff Koons was doing and maybe they went out and bought an extra case of Pepsi. Or maybe I gave away enough soft drinks that people got hooked on it. But the nexus is tough to meet on the potential conflict of interest on this stuff that I do. That's all I'm saying.

Ironically, a conflict of interest is what landed Koons on the city commission in the first place. In early 1989 Commissioner Nancy Graham (who is now mayor) resigned from the commission because the law firm with which she was an attorney, Moyle and Flanigan, had several clients that did business with the city. When Graham recognized the potential for conflict, she asked the city attorney for an opinion. She was told she'd have to recuse herself from voting every time one of her firm's clients came before the commission.

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