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Ex-Mercer County Park Commission chief pleads not guilty to corruption charges

Kevin Bannon

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Former Mercer County Park Commission executive director Kevin B. Bannon pleaded not guilty Monday to public corruption charges for which the erstwhile government employee and college basketball coach wants to go on trial.
Bannon, accompanied by family and friends at Mercer County Superior Court in Trenton, did not speak during his arraignment before Judge Darlene J. Pereksta. He stood beside his lawyer, Jack Furlong, who has filed a motion asking the judge to fix a “speedy trial date.”
Bannon, 60, is not interested in reaching a plea bargain, but rather wants his day in front of a jury, said Furlong.
Bannon was charged, in October, in a 10-count indictment with official misconduct and related offenses stemming from his county job and a nonprofit organization that Bannon had run with his brother. The state Attorney General’s Office, which brought the case following an investigation that included raiding park commission offices last year, accused Bannon of “diverting” thousands of dollars that should have gone to the county to the nonprofit, Friends of Mercer County Parks, that had been formed to aid the Park Commission. He is the only person charged in the case, with the most serious offenses each carrying prison sentences of up to 10 years.
Bannon was fired last year. The case has taken a toll him, with Bannon’s wife being “harassed” by at least one former county employee on her Facebook page, the lawyer said.
Furlong said he intends to subpoena records from a law firm, Riker Danzig, the county hired to probe the Bannon matter.
The firm, Furlong said, “interviewed dozens of witness. They reviewed thousands of documents. They prepped witnesses for appearance before the state grand jury. They conducted field investigation of all manner of facilities and abstracts and talked to independent contractors.”
“I find it hard to digest that taxpayers of Mercer County, of which I am one, paid north of three quarters of a million dollars for legal services that extended no further than some minimal advice to the county executive on how to handle this investigation by the Attorney General,” Furlong said.
Julie Willmot, county spokeswoman, said by email Monday that the law firm “prepared no internal investigating involving Kevin Bannon and or the Park Commission for the county of Mercer.”
Asked if the firm did any work in connection with the Bannon case, she answered: “Mercer County and the Mercer County Park Commission does not intend to comment on a pending criminal case initiated by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. Inquiries should be directed to the Attorney General.”
Bannon is a former head men’s basketball coach at Trenton State, Rider and Rutgers universities. His four-year-tenure at Rutgers ended with him being fired in 2001; his teams never made the NCAA tournament and there was controversy about a now infamous nude free throw shooting contest involving players and a team manager.
Finding himself in a court of law instead of on a basketball court, Bannon sat on a third-row bench, chewing gum and waiting for his case to be heard in the morning.
“We can take Kevin Bannon,” the judge said after going through the morning roll call of defendants. Furlong entered the formal not guilty plea on Bannon’s behalf during an otherwise brief arraignment. Needing to be fingerprinted afterward, he left the courtroom with his supporters, including former NBA player Greg Grant, who had played in college for Bannon at Trenton State, now called the College of New Jersey. His next court date will be Jan.5.
Bannon’s case will be heard before Pereksta, a Seton Hall Law School graduate and veteran jurist who has been on the bench since 2001 and previously served in the administration of former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, a Republican.

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