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.

Koons says he doesn't agree with the opinion and adds: "She shouldn't have asked for it."

As it turns out, another commissioner, Pat Pepper Schwab, moved into a residence in Graham's district just after the resignation. So Schwab was given Graham's seat, which left open a slot in Schwab's old district, number five, where Koons was a resident. Elections were only six months away, so the commission decided to appoint an interim commissioner. Koons, who was president of the South Flagler Neighborhood Association at the time, saw his chance. He added his name to a list of ten other residents vying for the appointment, hoping that his work as a lobbyist for Pepsi in Tallahassee and Washington would count as solid political experience.

Indeed, the commission took note. Before voting on the appointment, Schwab asked Koons if he thought his Pepsi job would be in conflict with a city commissioner position. No, Koons insisted, noting that the city itself had no contract with Pepsi. In September 1989 Koons was appointed to the commission, and six months later he won the election.

The commissioner's job was the perfect position for both Koons and his father. For years Bud Koons had helped his son expand his circle of influence for the benefit of his company, the Cincinnati-based Central Investment Corporation. In 1990 he promoted his son to vice president of field operations, a job with a six-figure salary and enough flexibility to allow Koons to commit himself to public service.

With time on his hands, Koons got involved with numerous government and quasi-government agencies. One such agency, which would serve Pepsi well, was the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), a countywide government body that sets priorities for the funding of state and federal roads.

In 1985, as part of a five-year plan, the board targeted an interchange at Interstate 95 and Gateway Boulevard in Boynton Beach as a priority for state funding. But in November 1989, just after Koons joined the MPO as one of his city's two representatives, the FDOT notified the board that the state would not be able to fund the new exit ramp. Along with more than a dozen other MPO members, Koons vigorously lobbied the FDOT to find funds to pay for the road, according to Randy Whitfield, the MPO's director.

Less than a year later, the FDOT told the MPO that it had reappropriated existing funds to pay for new projects. When Koons moved to have the $21 million interchange included, the board unanimously agreed, and construction on the ramp began.

During his divorce trial, Koons admitted that his job with Pepsi is what motivated him to push the interchange issue so hard. One of the biggest proponents of the exit ramp, he said, was Publix, a then-expanding supermarket chain that wanted to build its first Palm Beach County distribution center in an industrial park about a mile from the proposed interchange. Publix, Koons noted, was one of Pepsi's biggest clients.

"It saved Publix millions of dollars," Koons said in deposition. "They very much appreciated it, too."

Even if his colleagues, business associates, and friends are aware of Koons' somewhat shady dealings, no one really seems to mind. The fact is nearly everyone, supporters and detractors included, likes Jeff Koons.

"Even when he doesn't agree with you, he has the ability to be quite charming and quite politic," offers Dorothy Gulden, a West Palm Beach activist and real estate broker, who testified to the value of the Koons family home at the divorce trial.

Koons fancies himself a man of the people, of the rags-to-riches variety. When he describes his rise from Pepsi truck driver to vice president, he admits, only as an afterthought, that he rose relatively quickly in a family business.

That business was started in the '30s when Koons' paternal grandfather, John, started a walk-up hamburger restaurant in Cincinnati called the Burger Brewing Company. The financially successful company was later bought out by Pepsi-Cola. After John Koons died, his son, Bud, used the family's cash and stock to start the Central Investment Corporation. In 1996 that company earned roughly $165 million.

Jeff Koons is the oldest of four children, and he began working in the family business in 1970, almost immediately after he graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with a bachelor's degree in business. Although Bud Koons didn't purchase the Riviera Beach plant until 1973, he owned another plant in Fort Lauderdale at the time. He gave Jeff a job as a truck driver.

After about a year, Koons took off with a college friend for a year-long vacation in Mexico. He returned to his truck-driving job in Fort Lauderdale in 1973 and soon met Mary Louise Moore, a sculptor and painter from New Jersey. They met at her sister's wedding (the groom also worked for Pepsi) and got married in 1974. Within a year Koons was applying to graduate schools for business. But during a visit to Cincinnati, the couple was called into Bud Koons' office.

"He takes us in," Mary Louise Koons recalls, "and he says, 'You don't need a master's degree. This is going to be where you'll work. But first you need to do field work.'"

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