By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The news piece begins with footage of a polished black Range Rover pulling up to a white Gulfstream G400 jet at the Opa-locka Executive Airport. Two female members of South Beach's perma-tanned glitterati scamper out and into the $35 million plane. In the next shot, the women have gotten comfortable in the cabin. They wear white bathrobes while getting their nails manicured. A musclebound masseur kneads their shoulders. T-Pain provides the soundtrack.
You're watching a fluff piece on Halcyon Jets by Deco Drive, South Florida's version of Access Hollywood. Halcyon is one of the country's better-known charter plane companies and a recent corporate addition to South Florida. As a petite correspondent talks of "sky-high primping," Halcyon's preppy-chic chief operating officer, Christian Matteis, leads a tour of the lush, beige leather cabin. Flying private is now "more affordable than ever," Matteis gushes, his hands clasped demurely in his lap; a charter to London can be purchased for the bargain-basement rate of $130,000.
"There's nothing Halcyon can't do," Matteis promises jauntily. "You dare to dream."
The piece aired in October 2008. The next time Boca Raton native Matteis showed up on local TV screens was in August, when police say he sabotaged Halcyon in a bid to start a rival business. This time, Matteis wore an Affliction T-shirt and a stunned sneer in a mug shot beamed on nightly news shows. Boca Raton police arrested the millionaire COO, his office assistant, and Halcyon's executive flight director. According to police, they shredded Halcyon's precious client lists, which included celebrity customers like rapper Kanye West and football legend Joe Montana.
Matteis' attorney, Kenneth Ronan, calls the criminal charges "nothing more than false accusations," and the trio is scheduled to stand trial later this year.
But the executive mutiny was nothing out of the ordinary for Halcyon. In its two and a half years of existence, the company has been jostled by some serious turbulence, including an accusation that it bribed employees at rival companies to jump ship and kept a former Wall Street pirate as its secret CEO. Deservedly or not, Halcyon has a reputation in its glittery niche industry as the Blackbeard of the sky.
When Halcyon Jets was founded in Manhattan in February 2007, it had an invaluable secret weapon: Al Palagonia, an executive with a seemingly infinite stable of big-dollar connections. In the jet-charter business, there is no more valuable asset than a Rolodex full of clients.
Palagonia was the top trader for D.H. Blair & Co., a Manhattan brokerage firm. During the greed-is-still-good '90s, Newsweek referred to him as "the best salesman on Wall Street." Now 42, the former wünderkind brags that he used to earn a million dollars a month. Palagonia was close friends with former Miami Heat superstar Shaquille O'Neal and filmmaker Spike Lee. The director cast his slickly handsome pal in six Spike Lee joints, including a memorable turn as a conniving sports agent in the 1998 basketball-business flick He Got Game.
The role, it turns out, wasn't too far from reality. In 2001, the Manhattan district attorney indicted Palagonia, his brokerage firm, and 14 other traders on racketeering charges. Palagonia had helped bilk retirees out of savings through worthless stock schemes to the tune of $6 million in one year alone, prosecutors said. Palagonia pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption and securities fraud. He paid a $400,000 fine and served three years in prison. As part of the sentence, Palagonia was barred from working in the securities industry. In 2000, he was the basis for Ben Affleck's character in the testosterone-and-trading staple Boiler Room, becoming the Gordon Gekko of the Christopher Moltisanti generation.
Palagonia was released from prison two months after Halcyon was founded. A year later, the Sporting News reported that Palagonia told a reporter he was "managing director" of Halcyon Jets. His famous BFFs scored gigs in the new company: Spike Lee sat on Halcyon's board of directors. O'Neal became one of its spokesmen, along with football star Reggie Bush. The athletes hobnobbed at glitzy Halcyon-sponsored events in an effort to snare clients, including a Supercar Weekend event in West Palm Beach. Halcyon even hired former New Kids on the Block crooner Danny Wood as a sales executive to gain access to his star contacts.
But a rival charter jet company would claim in court that Halcyon devised an easier way to build its client list: corporate theft. In September 2008, Delaware-based Jet One Group sued Halcyon under federal antiracketeering laws. Among the accusations, Jet One accused Halcyon of paying a Jet One employee $50,000 to quit and then "provide Halcyon with confidential and proprietary information, including computer records," according to the suit.
The lawsuit, which sought $15 million in damages, also claimed that Halcyon fraudulently negotiated to buy Jet One. "We believe that they never intended to acquire Jet One," the company's attorney, Steven Legum, tells New Times. "What they did acquire was the customer list, which was worth $4 million."
Additionally, Jet One claimed that Palagonia was the "de facto chief executive officer of Halcyon."
In a news release, Halcyon called the accusations "false, malicious, and irresponsible." In November 2008, Halcyon filed a $105 million defamation suit in New York federal court against Jet One. This August, the RICO suit was dismissed without prejudice — meaning that the same claims can be addressed again. Legum says he'll file a similar suit, this time in state court, "within the next week or so."