Former Mercer County Park Director Kevin Bannon indicted for theft

Kevin Bannon

Kevin Bannon, the 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 from the county to a nonprofit he controlled, Attorney General Christopher Porrino said. Bannon allegedly also arranged unauthorized benefits for himself, his family and others at county expense, including VIP concert tickets and free golf at county golf courses, law enforcement officials said.

The Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau obtained a state grand jury indictment charging Bannon, 60, with six counts of official misconduct, one count of pattern of official misconduct, one count of misapplication of entrusted property and property of government, one count of theft by unlawful taking, and one count of theft of services. 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 non-profit called the Friends of Mercer County Parks on county time with county employees, and allegedly was diverting funds to the non-profit that should have been paid to the county. Bannon ran the non-profit with his brother, whom he allegedly hired as a project manager for the park commission so that the brother could run the non-profit, law enforcement officials said. The brother is not charged in the investigation. Bannon, a Lawrenceville resident and former men’s basketball coach at Rutgers University, 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 non-profit, 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 funded by the county. Bannon, a Democratic appointee, was hired by the county, led the park commission as executive director and was supervised by a board of commissioners.

The non-profit was formed to support and promote the park commission. By allegedly diverting funds unlawfully to the non-profit, which was run solely by Bannon and his brother, Bannon controlled the 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,” Porrino said. “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 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 – Bannon allegedly 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 annual golf outings, and outings for his own family. He allegedly 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 more than $37,000 in golf fees for the Friends for three annual outings from 2013 to 2015; over $19,000 in fees for four annual golf outings from 2012 to 2015; and more than $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  benefits that  included 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 more than $8,000.

U.S. Tennis Association Fee Diversion – Mercer County Park began hosting the U.S. Tennis Association U.S. Open Qualifier for the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2010. Bannon, without authorization, allegedly 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 – Bannon, without authorization, allegedly 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 non-profit.

Free Golf for Friends Accountant – Bannon allegedly hired an accountant to work for the Friends organization, and rather than the non-profit 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 – Bannon allegedly required a county vendor to pay a kickback of 10 percent of concession proceeds to the Friends non-profit 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 non-profit a total of more than $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 – Bannon allegedlysolicited 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.

“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 Elie Honig, director of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice. “But we allege that Bannon illegally used the non-profit as a slush fund to increase his power and influence.”

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 was handed up to Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson in Mercer County. Bannon will be ordered to appear in court at a later date for arraignment.