Fomer Mercer County Park Director, Kevin Bannon indicted in corruption scandal

Kevin Bannon Brian hughes
Kevin Bannon, who was indicted for corruption shown in a file photo with Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.

Fomer Director of the Mercer County Park Commission has been indicted on official misconduct and several related charges for using his position to divert thousands of dollars of public money to a nonprofit he controlled, state authorities said.

The former executive director of the Mercer County Park Commission was indicted Tuesday for allegedly diverting money that should have been paid to the county to a nonprofit he controlled, and also arranging unauthorized benefits for himself, his family and others at county expense.

The state Attorney General’s Office announced the charges against Bannon, 60, on Tuesday afternoon.

Bannon was hired and praised in 2004 by Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes after being fired as the head coach of the Rutgers basketball amid a scandal and lawsuit in which was ultimately dismissed by a judge after two former Rutgers basketball players and a team manager said they were humiliated when Bannon forced them to run naked during practice.

Authorities stated that Bannon ran the Friends of Mercer County Parks on county time with county employees, and allegedly was diverting funds to the nonprofit that should have been paid to the county.

The state alleges Bannon operated six different schemes in which Bannon moved commission money to the nonprofit, or he arranged benefits at county expense for himself, his family, and others, through commission facilities and events.  The Park Commission is a semi-autonomous public agency funded by the county.

“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 Christopher General Porrino said in a statement.

“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.” he continued.

“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,” Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice said.

Kevin Bannon Brian Hughes

From left, Mercer County Park Commission President Drew Worek, Kevin Bannon, Mercer County Park executive director, Richard J. Coffee, and County Executive Brian M. Hughes share a moment during the dedication of Mercer County Park in Coffee’s name on Friday, Oct. 16, 2009.

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: Prosecutors say 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. Prosecutors allege Bannon, without authorization, had $9,000 in court rental fees — $3,000 each year for 2013, 2014 and 2015 — which the USTA 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: Prosecutors say 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: Prosecutors say 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: Officials allege 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: Prosecutors allege 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.

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.