Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons today entered a guilty plea to extortion charges based on threatening a family that opposed the South Cove lagoon preservation project and using his political position to harass that family. In exchange for the plea, Koons won't have to serve time in jail. But all the same, the Koons case will provide a strong deterrent for other local politicians tempted to abuse their office.
Much like drivers on the freeway, South Florida politicians adjust their behavior based on a perception of what they can get away with. Koons' fellow commissioners Warren Newell and Tony Masilotti were accepting bribes -- which is like going through a speed trap at 90 mph. No way Koons wasn't going to make that kind of mistake.
Nor was he going to cast votes on contracts for which he stood to gain financially
in a fashion that earned a prison sentence for Commissioner Mary McCarty. That's like setting the cruise control at 80 -- again, Koons valued his freedom too much to take a risk like that.
Compared to those feats of corruption, Koons exploiting his office to harass a political opponent was the equivalent of about 75 mph: over the speed limit but not so much faster than the rest of the South Florida political traffic as to attract attention -- or so he thought.
The Palm Beach State Attorney's Office didn't have to throw Koons in jail. They just needed to pull him to the side of the road and give him a ticket: five years probation and the likely end of his political career. In doing so, the prosecutors have given an object lesson to the other local politicians who are weighing the temptation to corrupt themselves against the risk of being caught.
Until today, those politicians could have slept soundly, comforted by the knowledge that they're no Tony Masilotti, no Beverly Gallagher nor Josephus Eggelletion. But if guys like Koon are vulnerable, then so are a lot of local politicians. The smart ones will take their cue and ease off the accelerator.