Halcyon Jets exec accused of sabotaging the company

A polished black Range Rover pulls up to a white Gulfstream G400 jet at Opa-locka Executive Airport. Two female members of South Beach's perma-tanned gliteratti scamper out of the SUV and onto the $35 million plane. Inside, the women get comfortable, donning white bathrobes while getting their nails manicured. A musclebound masseur kneads their shoulders. T-Pain provides the soundtrack.

You're watching a fluff piece about Halcyon Jets by Deco Drive, Miami's version of Access Hollywood. Halcyon is one of the nation's best-known charter plane companies and a recent corporate addition to South Florida. Its jets have flown A-listers such as Kanye West, Shaquille O'Neal, Spike Lee, and P. Diddy. As a petite correspondent talks of "sky-high primping," Halcyon's preppy-chic chief operating officer, Christian Matteis, leads a tour of the lush beige leather cabin. Flying private is now "more affordable than ever," he gushes, his hands clasped demurely in his lap. A charter to London can be purchased for the bargain-basement rate of $130,000.

"There's nothing Halcyon can't do," Matteis promises jauntily.

The piece aired in October 2008. The next time the Boca Raton native showed up on local television was this past August, when he was arrested for allegedly sabotaging Halcyon in a bid to start a rival business. The mug shot that flashed across screens on the nightly news showed him wearing an Affliction T-shirt and a sneer. He had been taken into custody along with his office assistant and the executive flight director. Among other things, they were accused of shredding Halcyon's precious client lists.

Matteis's attorney, Kenneth Ronan, calls the criminal charges "nothing more than false accusations." The trio is scheduled to stand trial later this year.

But the executive mutiny was nothing out of the ordinary for Halcyon. In its two and a half years, the company has been accused of bribing employees at rival firms to jump ship and keeping a former Wall Street pirate as its secret CEO. Deservedly or not, Halcyon has a reputation as the Blackbeard of the sky.

When the company was founded in Manhattan in February 2007, it had an invaluable secret weapon: slickly handsome Al Palagonia, an executive with a seemingly infinite stable of big-dollar connections. In the charter jet business, there is no more valuable asset than a Rolodex of clients.

Palagonia was the top trader for D.H. Blair & Co., a Manhattan brokerage firm. During the greed-is-still-good '90s, Newsweek referred to him as "the best salesman on Wall Street." He has been close friends with former Miami Heat superstar Shaquille O'Neal and filmmaker Spike Lee, who cast his pal in six films, including a memorable turn as a conniving sports agent in the 1998 basketball-business flick He Got Game.

The role, it turns out, wasn't too far from reality. In 2001, the Manhattan district attorney indicted Palagonia, 14 other traders, and the brokerage firm on racketeering charges. In one year alone, Palagonia had helped bilk $6 million out of retirees through worthless stock schemes, prosecutors said. He pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption and securities fraud, paid a $400,000 fine, and served three years in prison. As part of the sentence, Palagonia was barred from working in the securities industry. In 2000, he was the basis for Ben Affleck's character in the testosterone-and-trading staple Boiler Room.

Palagonia was released from prison two months after Halcyon was founded. A year later, the Sporting News reported that Palagonia told a reporter he was "managing director" of Halcyon Jets. Spike Lee sat on the firm's board of directors. O'Neal became one of its spokesmen, along with football star Reggie Bush. In an effort to snare clients, the athletes hobnobbed at glitzy Halcyon-sponsored events, including a Supercar Weekend in West Palm Beach. Halcyon even hired former New Kids on the Block crooner Danny Wood as a sales executive in order to gain access to his star contacts.

But a rival jet charter company would claim in court that Halcyon devised an easier way to build its client list: corporate theft. In September 2008, Delaware-based Jet One Group sued Halcyon under federal anti-racketeering laws. Among the accusations: Halcyon paid a Jet One employee $50,000 to quit and then "provide Halcyon with confidential and proprietary information, including computer records," according to the suit.

The lawsuit, which sought $15 million in damages, also claimed Halcyon fraudulently negotiated to buy Jet One. "We believe that they never intended to acquire Jet One," the company's attorney, Steven Legum, tells New Times. "What they did acquire was the customer list, which was worth $4 million."

Additionally, Jet One claimed Palagonia was the "de facto chief executive officer of Halcyon."

In a press release, Halcyon called the accusations "false, malicious, and irresponsible." In November 2008, Halcyon filed a $105 million defamation suit in New York federal court against Jet One. This past August, the RICO suit was dismissed without prejudice — meaning the same claims can be readdressed. Legum says he'll file a similar suit, this time in state court, "within the next week or so."

Last year, Halcyon opened offices in Boca and downtown Miami. It soon encountered trouble here too.

In May 2009, Matteis and two other Halcyon employees began an effort to raid the company in order to start their own South Florida-based charter, according to a Boca Raton Police report. Matteis; his assistant, 42-year-old Vanessa Gama; and the executive flight director, 27-year-old Leonard Tambasco, began removing equipment from the Boca Raton office. When CEO Greg Cohen caught wind and flew into town, he found the office stripped of everything "except for five chairs and desks." Most vitally, the trio stole cabinets containing "all of Halcyon's client files," the police report claims. They had even changed every employee's computer log-in information, claimed Cohen, in "a blatant attempt to disrupt the company's business."

Tambasco, who lives in Boynton Beach, did not reply to a voicemail message left on his cell phone for comment. Gama has moved from her former residence and could not be located.

As Halcyon's chief operating officer, 37-year-old Matteis earned a base salary of at least $525,000, according to a contract later filed in a Palm Beach County civil suit. He earned half of the profits gleaned from clients he brought to the company, including comedian Dave Chappelle, baseball legend Cal Ripken, and Saudi prince Faisal al Saud. Matteis lives in a 4,800-square-foot Boca Raton home he purchased in 2005 for $934,000. Tambasco earned a $70,000 salary plus stock incentives and commission.

Cohen sent letters terminating all three on May 20. Less than two months later, the trio secretly founded Atlantis Jets. Police say they left their names off incorporation papers, using family members instead. They listed a Boynton Beach address as the headquarters.

On August 10, Halcyon sued them in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. Ten days later, Boca Raton Police charged Matteis, Tambasco, and Gama with grand theft, theft of trade secrets, and an organized scheme to defraud. Their trial is set to begin October 5.

Making matters more bizarre, last week Halcyon announced it was merging with another charter provider: Manhattan-based Apollo Jets, which also lists Palagonia as a "managing director." The newly formed company will operate under the Apollo name.

New Times interviewed senior vice president Dennis S. Amodio in the company's sparse office on North Miami Avenue. He insisted Palagonia is just a "guy in the sales office" and ended the interview when he was asked about the Jet One claim. "That lawsuit's not even real," he said. "It was thrown out."

Amodio said Apollo's legal department or CEO Cohen would phone to answer any further questions. That call never came.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts