Ex-coach faces felony theft charges

By Brandon Scalea

A champion coach and former radio commentator for Rider men’s basketball could be facing up to 10 years in state prison if convicted on theft and misconduct charges, officials announced last week.

Kevin Bannon, who most recently served as executive director of the Mercer County Parks Commission, allegedly used the position to funnel money into his own pocket and to a nonprofit he ran, according to state Attorney General Christopher Porrino.

Officials said that Bannon, who was indicted Oct. 31, diverted thousands of the county’s dollars to his organization called Friends of Mercer County Parks. He also is accused of using the extra cash to buy himself VIP concert tickets and free rounds of golf, according to a press release.

“Local taxpayers ultimately foot the bill when officials engage in the type of illegal power grab and abuse of public resources alleged here,” Porrino said in a statement. “We won’t tolerate it.”

Bannon coached Rider from 1989-1997 and led the team to two straight NCAA Tournaments in 1993 and 1994.

His nonprofit first raised suspicions in an April 2016 state public corruption investigation. He was fired from his six-figure-paying county position two months later.

The investigation discovered that Bannon and his brother started the Friends organization to “support and promote the Parks Commission.” Since they were the sole directors of the nonprofit, Bannon was able to control his allegedly illegal funds without needing anyone’s approval. His brother is not currently facing charges.

“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,” said Elie Honig, director of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice. “But we allege that Bannon illegally used the nonprofit as a slush fund to increase his power and influence.”

Bannon is facing six separate counts of official misconduct related to six alleged schemes he conducted, including a $5,000 payment from the Trenton Thunder minor league baseball team to Friends and fees of up to $3,000 charged to a food vendor at Mercer County Park concerts.

Second-degree charges of misconduct typically carry sentences of five to 10 years in state prison and fines of up to $150,000.

Bannon’s attorney, Jack Furlong, said he is confident the former parks director will prevail in court.

“While I don’t know the details of the charges beyond what I’ve been told, I know of no witness who claimed Kevin made a single dollar from any county or county-related agency beyond his own paycheck,” Furlong said.

Before taking the county parks job, Bannon had been one of the hottest coaches in college basketball.

In the 1980s, he turned TCNJ (then Trenton State) into a national powerhouse at the Division III level, before taking the head coaching job at Rider. He then guided the Broncs to back-to-back Northeast Conference titles in 1993 and 1994.

The 1993 NEC Championship, which was played in Alumni Gym, ended with Rider’s all-time leading scorer, Darrick Suber, hitting a buzzer-beater to give the Broncs a two-point win and the title. That timeless moment in university history is dubbed “The Suber Shot.”

Athletic Director Don Harnum said Bannon’s success was critical to moving Rider from the NEC to the more high-profile MAAC.

“Kevin took a major rebuilding job when he first got here — the previous team went 5-23 — and steadily built the team into a consistent winner,” Harnum said.

Bannon left Rider in 1997 to take the same job at Rutgers, where he had another respectable tenure. As recently as 2015, he had also been a color commentator for the Rider men’s basketball broadcasts on 107.7 The Bronc.

Bannon’s case will be handled by Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson in the Mercer County Criminal Courts System.

His lawyer issued a warning to those who might testify against the former coach.

“Permit me to publicly advise witnesses who plan to lie under oath: This will not go well for you,” Furlong said.

And to the state’s Attorney General, Furlong had an even more colorful jab, adding that Porrino should read the full county-sponsored report of the 2016 investigation to get his facts straight.

“He will learn at trial that when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas,” Furlong said. “I’m just trying to spare the man a rash.”

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