Multimillionaire Palm Beach Commissioner Jeff Koons was booked into jail in the dark of night on state extortion and perjury charges and a Sunshine Law violation.
The 62-year-old Koons was booked into jail about 3:30 a.m. after spending Monday at county hall cleaning out his desk and saying his goodbyes, telling people he was pleading guilty to the charges, and, although he was losing his seat, didn't expect to face jail time, sources said.
The charge involves alleged threats Koons made demanding support from a property owner for a county environmental project on the Lake Worth Lagoon. From the Palm Beach Post:
Investigators reported that the threats happened between May 6 and June 17 and included what they say was telling message on the voice mail of an agent of the Johnson family:
"Koons followed up on the threat by engaging in conduct designed to punish the victims for not dropping their opposition. Koons made a phone call from his cell phone to the victim's agent at 9:14 Thursday, May 6, the call went to the victim's agent's voice mail," the arrest report states.
The phone call included this snippet, investigators say:
"I want them to say 'We'd love to have this project.' I'm going to go door to door to every tenant in their building and throw them under the f'ing bus. I'm going to say they want a marina out here versus a public island. I'm going to go to the FBI who's who in their building. I'm going to go to the Quantum Foundation. I'm going to go to every tenant in that building. I'm going to see if I've got banking relationships with anybody there. I want this done and it's a personal thing for me."
When questioned about making threats by state investigators, Koons denied making any. Hence the perjury charge. When questioned later, Koons said he had been drinking alcoholic beverages before the call and still didn't remember any threats, according to the arrest report.
This is the first corruption case I've seen that doesn't involve any allegation of a payoff or financial benefit for the charged politico whatsoever. No greasy-palmed developers here. It amounts to a hotheaded commissioner leaving a stupid, abusive, and drunken voice-mail.
UPDATED: The Sunshine violation relates to meetings and emails between Koons and Richard Walesky, director of the county's Department of Environmental Resource Management. Walesky and Koons also both serve on the executive committee for the Lake Worth Lagoon Initiative.
Considering the charges, I can see why the SAO wouldn't demand jail time for Koons. In the end, if the source is right that the plea deal basically knocks Koons out of office without much further punishment, that sounds about right. Again, whether a jury would have convicted him, Koons' behavior falls well below the threshold of what anyone would want out of an elected official.
Koons, a former West Palm Beach city commissioner as well, made no secret of his rabid support of the county project to restore the Lake Worth Lagoon with sea grass, mangroves, and an oyster bed. In opposition were some property owners, including some stiffs living in the Trump Plaza who oppose the project in part because they're afraid of -- wait for it -- traffic and noise caused by busloads of children expected to come to enjoy the renovated lagoon.
Koons is the fourth Palm Beach County commissioner in the past four years to be hit with criminal charges, following in the footsteps of Tony Masilotti, Warren Newell, and
Mary McCarty (whose husband was also hit with charges). In January last year, Koons voiced "embarrassment' with the commission over the corruption charges and poked fun at McCarty, according to a Sun-Sentinel article from the time.
"I'm embarrassed with what some of my commissioners have done," Koons said last year at a luncheon for business leaders.
Koons' grandfather owned a Pepsi bottling plant, and when the family business was sold in December 2004 for $340 million, Koons saw a $12 million windfall to drive his net worth to $15 million. He assured people at the time that the money wouldn't go to his head ("I'll still be the old Jeff," he told the Palm Beach Post at the time). He also said he had enough wealth that corruption wasn't an issue with him. "You can look at my net worth," he said at the luncheon last year. "I'm worth a lot of money. I'm giving myself back to my community."
He may have had enough money not to take a payoff, but Koons was no rampant do-gooder. He was also a darling of the lobbying and development crowd, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from special interests during campaigns. And he has a long history of behaving, well, like a spoiled rich kid.
When he was divorced from his wife in 1997, the judge remarked in his decree that Koons made $500,000 a year from his family business yet still managed to spend more than he earned, the Post reported in 2002.
"These folks have an interesting financial history," Circuit Judge Hubert Lindsey wrote. "Historically, the husband was paid a substantial salary during the time that he worked for Pepsi-Cola, and remarkably, in each of those years, the parties spent more than the husband brought home."
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The judge also noted that Koons had "attended Debtors Anonymous in 1992 but failed to change his spending habits," according to the article.
While Koons served on the West Palm Beach City Commission, New Times dug up evidence that he had used his position to benefit his family's Pepsi bottling business. Here's an excerpt from the 1998 story:
Koons has plenty of explaining to do. During the divorce proceedings, his father, Bud, eliminated his son's $500,000 job as vice president of field operations for the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach. The Riviera Beach-based bottler is owned by the elder Koons' $165 million company, Central Investment Corporation (CIC), for which Jeff Koons worked for 28 years. Bud Koons would not speak to New Times for this article, and his son claims that he is simply on a "leave of absence."
Whatever his status with the company now, Koons admitted, in deposition and during the divorce trial, that he has used his $16,000-a-year job as a city commissioner to reap financial benefits for Pepsi. He explained that he's done dozens of political favors on the company's behalf.
Case in point: In early January 1997, Philip Arvidson, his boss at the bottler, left him a voice mail message asking for help in securing funding for a $60 million convention center to be built in West Palm Beach. In deposition Koons said that Arvidson told him Pepsi customers in the hotel-and-motel industry were worried because, after months of discussion, government funding for the center still wasn't available. The center, which has yet to be approved, is considered an integral part of an ongoing redevelopment program in West Palm Beach. If it's built, the argument goes, it's sure to attract tourists, who will pack existing hotels and create a demand for more. More hotels means more contracts for Pepsi. And who better to help secure public funding for the center than a city commissioner who happens to work for Pepsi?
Koons went to work for Arvidson by putting together a team of lobbyists, city staff, and county officials who headed to Tallahassee in May 1997. They lobbied the state legislature for an additional penny tax on hotels to help pay for the center. The proposal didn't fly that year, and Koons' position at Pepsi was eliminated by his father a month later. But, in the fall of 1997, Koons traveled once again to Tallahassee.
One of the state representatives with whom he met was Sharon Merchant (R-North Palm Beach), who says she assumed Koons was lobbying on behalf of West Palm Beach. He never mentioned his relationship with Pepsi, which continues to make him money -- in the form of a trust fund set up by Bud Koons. With Merchant's help the state legislature passed a bill in April that would fund the center with an existing tax.
There are political hurdles on the city and county levels to be overcome before the center is approved, but Koons accomplished exactly what his former boss at Pepsi requested. In deposition Koons referred to a letter sent to him after the bill was passed: "The manager of the Sheraton Hotel said, 'I really appreciate everything that your company has done and everything you've done individually on this.'"
Koons even explained how his efforts would help Pepsi down the road. "The other side benefit [of helping the hotel owners]," he noted, "is that, potentially, when they're looking for the companies that would be available [for] selling the beverages -- that if it comes to 'even steven' -- they're going to go with Pepsi, because they know in the long range that's a company that basically helped secure the convention center."