Halcyon Air Has Star Clients Like Shaquille O'Neal. But Why Can't It Stay Out of Trouble?
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."
Last year, Halcyon opened offices in Boca Raton and downtown Miami, flying out of Opa-locka and Boca Raton. It soon encountered trouble there too.
In May 2009, Matteis and two other Halcyon employees began an effort to raid the company to start their own South Florida-based charter, according to a Boca Raton Police Department report. Matteis; his 42-year-old assistant, Vanessa Gama; and 27-year-old Executive Flight Director Leonard Tambasco began moving equipment out of the Boca Raton office. When CEO Greg Cohen caught wind and flew into town, he found the office stripped of everything "except for five chairs and desks." Most vitally, the trio stole cabinets containing "all of Halcyon's client files," the police report claims. They had even changed every employee's computer login information, claimed Cohen, in "a blatant attempt to disrupt the company's business."
Tambasco, who lives in Boynton Beach, did not return a message left on his cell phone for comment. Gama has moved from her former residence and could not be located.
As Halcyon's chief operating officer, 37-year-old Matteis earned a base salary of at least $525,000, according to a contract later filed in a Palm Beach County civil suit. He earned half of the profits gleaned from clients he brought to the company, including comedian Dave Chappelle, baseball legend Cal Ripken, and Saudi prince Faisal al Saud. Matteis lives in a 4,800-square-foot Boca Raton home he bought in 2005 for $934,000. Tambasco earned a $70,000 salary, plus stock incentives and commission.
Cohen sent letters terminating all three on May 20. Less than two months later, the trio secretly founded Atlantis Jets. Police say they left their names off incorporation papers, using family members instead. They listed a Boynton Beach address as its headquarters.
On August 10, Halcyon filed a civil suit against them in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. Ten days later, Boca Raton police charged Matteis, Tambasco, and Gama with grand theft, theft of trade secrets, and an organized scheme to defraud. Their trial is set to begin October 5.
Making matters more bizarre, last week Halcyon made a surprising announcement. The company was merging with another charter provider: Manhattan-based Apollo Jets, which also lists Palagonia as a "managing director." The newly formed company will operate under the Apollo name.
As that news spread, Senior Vice President Dennis S. Amodio agreed to an interview in the company's Miami office, a sparse steel-and-wood suite in an 80-year-old building on North Miami Avenue. But it seemed the burly 30-year-old former financier hoped only to extol the virtues of the merge. Asked what role Palagonia might have in the new company, Amodio insisted that the disgraced trader is just a "guy in the sales office" and ended the interview when a question was asked concerning the Jet One claim. "That lawsuit's not even real," Amodio said. "It was thrown out. I thought you guys wanted to do a story on, you know, jets. I really don't think this stuff is what you should be writing about."
Amodio said that Apollo's legal department or CEO Cohen would phone to answer any further questions. That call never came.
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