TRENTON – Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced that Kevin Bannon, former executive director of the Mercer County Park Commission, was indicted today on charges that he used his official position to divert thousands of dollars that should have been paid to the county to a nonprofit he controlled, Friends of Mercer County Parks, and also arranged unauthorized benefits for himself, his family and others at county expense, including VIP concert tickets and free golf at county golf courses.
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The Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau obtained a state grand jury indictment charging Bannon, 60, of Lawrenceville, N.J., with six counts of official misconduct (2nd degree), one count of pattern of official misconduct (2nd degree), one count of misapplication of entrusted property and property of government (2nd degree), one count of theft by unlawful taking (3rd degree), and one count of theft of services (3rd degree). The official misconduct and pattern of official misconduct charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison, with a mandatory term of five years of parole ineligibility.
The indictment stems from an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau, which began when the division learned that Bannon allegedly was running a nonprofit, Friends of Mercer County Parks (“Friends”), on county time with county employees, and allegedly was diverting funds to the nonprofit that should have been paid to the county. Bannon ran the nonprofit with his brother, whom he allegedly hired as a project manager for the park commission so that the brother could run the nonprofit. The brother is not charged in the investigation. Bannon was terminated from his position as executive director of the Park Commission after the investigation became public.
The investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice revealed six different schemes through which Bannon allegedly diverted money illegally from the Mercer County Park Commission to the Friends nonprofit, or through which Bannon allegedly arranged for unauthorized benefits at county expense for himself, his family, and others close to him involving Park Commission facilities and events. The Park Commission is a semi-autonomous public agency funded by the county. Bannon led the Park Commission as executive director, but he was subject to supervision by its Board of Commissioners. The Friends nonprofit was formed for the stated purpose of supporting and promoting the Park Commission. However, by allegedly diverting funds unlawfully to the Friends nonprofit, which was run solely by Bannon and his brother, Bannon controlled those funds without needing anyone’s approval.
“We allege that Bannon corruptly used the Friends organization to divert county funds and expand his power over park facilities and events, while also conferring unauthorized benefits like free golf and VIP concert tickets on himself, his family and his inner circle,” said Attorney General Porrino. “Local taxpayers ultimately foot the bill when officials engage in the type of illegal power grab and abuse of public resources alleged here. We won’t tolerate it.”
“Bannon fooled many into thinking that the Friends nonprofit and the Parks Commission were, in essence, the same organization, so they didn’t suspect when asked to pay the nonprofit money that should have gone to the county,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “But we allege that Bannon illegally used the nonprofit as a slush fund to increase his power and influence.”
Deputy Attorneys General Mallory Shanahan and Charles Wright presented the indictment to the state grand jury for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau. Attorney General Porrino commended all of the detectives and attorneys who handled the investigation for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau Central Squad, under the supervision of Bureau Chief Anthony Picione.
Bannon is charged with six separate counts of official misconduct related to the following six alleged schemes:
- Waiver of Fees for Golf Outings/Signs for Friends Sponsors – It is alleged that Bannon abused his authority at the Park Commission by waiving fees for golf outings for groups he was a part of, including fees for Friends annual golf outings, New Jersey Recreation and Parks Association (NJRPA) annual golf outings, and outings for his own family, and that he used county funds and resources to organize and staff the outings, fundraise for the Friends nonprofit, and create sponsorship signs for the Friends outings. Without authorization, Bannon allegedly waived over $37,000 in golf fees for the Friends nonprofit for three annual outings from 2013 to 2015; over $19,000 in fees for the NJRPA for four annual golf outings from 2012 to 2015; and over $700 in fees for two Bannon family golf outings in 2013, when fees were discounted, and 2015, when no fees were charged. Bannon allegedly directed county employees to solicit businesses to sponsor the Friends golf outings at various dollar levels, which entitled the sponsors to corresponding benefits, including signs highlighting their sponsorship at the golf outings and, for higher-level sponsors, other Park Commission events. The signs were produced at the Park Commission’s sign shop or purchased from a county vendor at a total cost to the county of over $8,000.
- U.S. Tennis Association Fee Diversion – Mercer County Park began hosting the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) U.S. Open Qualifier for the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2010. It is alleged that Bannon, without authorization, had $9,000 in court rental fees – $3,000 each year for 2013, 2014 and 2015 – which the USTA paid for use of the Mercer County Tennis Center paid to the Friends nonprofit instead of the Park Commission, which should have received the fees.
- VIP Concert Tickets and Per-Ticket Donation to Friends – It is alleged that Bannon, without authorization, signed a contract with a concert promoter on behalf of the Park Commission that personally awarded him numerous free VIP tickets to three concerts in the summer of 2015 at the Mercer County Park Festival Grounds involving Barenaked Ladies, R-5, and Lee Brice. The tickets were worth $6,240. The contract provided that Bannon could host 30 to 50 personal guests at each concert, with the guests to be admitted free of charge and given access to a VIP hospitality tent. Bannon held VIP parties for his invited guests at two of the concerts. The VIP area was set up, taken down and cleaned by Park Commission employees. Bannon also allegedly negotiated an unauthorized fee/donation of $2 per ticket for each of the concerts payable to the Friends organization that generated nearly $21,000 in revenue for the nonprofit.
- Free Golf for Friends Accountant – It is alleged that Bannon hired an accountant to work for the Friends organization, and rather than the nonprofit paying for his services, Bannon agreed, without authorization, to offer the accountant free golf and a free golf cart at any time at any of the Park Commission’s golf courses, which include the Mercer Oaks, Mountain View and Princeton Country Club courses. Between 2013 and 2015, the accountant played about 200 rounds of golf, for which the waived fees totaled over $8,000. The accountant is not charged.
- Kickback to Friends from Food Vendor – It is alleged that Bannon required a county vendor to pay a kickback of 10 percent of concession proceeds to the Friends nonprofit to sell food and beverages at the three concerts at the Festival Grounds in 2015, even though the vendor already had an exclusive concession contract with the Park Commission to sell his goods at Park events. The vendor paid the Friends nonprofit a total of over $3,000 for the three concerts. Bannon told the vendor the concerts were exceptions to his contract because they were sponsored by the Friends group, but the Friends were actually beneficiaries of the concerts, not sponsors.
- Trenton Thunder Payment – It is alleged that Bannon solicited and received a payment of $5,000 for the Friends nonprofit from the Trenton Thunder Minor League Baseball team in 2015 in exchange for waiving fees that he represented were owed to the county for non-baseball events held by the team at its stadium, Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, which is owned by the county and leased to the Thunder. The Thunder had previously donated money to the Friends, but Bannon allegedly told the team that he would waive the extra fees owed to the county if they increased their Friends sponsorship to at least $5,000.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The second-degree charges of official misconduct and pattern of official misconduct also carry a mandatory minimum term of parole ineligibility of five years. Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
The indictment is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The indictment was handed up to Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson in Mercer County, who assigned the case to Mercer County, where Bannon will be ordered to appear in court at a later date for arraignment.
Attorney General Porrino and Division Director Elie Honig urged anyone with information about public corruption to contact the Division of Criminal Justice at its toll-free Corruption Tipline 1-866-TIPS-4CJ to report the information confidentially. The public can also log on to the Division webpage at www.njdcj.org to report suspected wrongdoing confidentially.