The attorneys for insurance executive and South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross and several corporations with strong ties to him are suing the Murphy administration over its scrutiny into how they received tax breaks from the state.
Norcross, along with his insurance company Conner Strong & Buckelew, The Michaels Organization, Cooper University Health Care – where he sits on the board– and Parker McCay – which his brother owns – filed the suit against Gov. Phil Murphy, his administration and the task force over its work in recent weeks.
The five-count, 251-page suit, filed in the Mercer County Superior Court, is asking the court to dissolve the task force and give the plaintiffs the chance to publicly address the allegations.
The suit describes the task force as an “entity cloaked with governmental power.”
The powerful legal team includes New Jersey Legislature attorney Mike Chritchley, former Bridgegate-scandal defense lawyer Kevin Marino and former U.S. Homeland Security Chief Mike Chertoff.
William Tambussi from Brown & Connery, and the lawyer for George Norcross, Conner Strong, NFI and TMO, sent a letter last week to the home of Murphy and task force chair Ron Chen telling them to preserve any documents that would be relevant in the impending lawsuit.
Tambussi, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, defended his actions and disputed they were meant to intimidate the administration and the task force.
“I wanted the recipients to actually see the letters, something you can’t always guarantee when you send letters to government offices and it’s important that the recipients of those letters read those letters and see what is set out in those letters,” he said, adding that letters of these types are commonly sent by attorneys to residences.
Parker McCay – the law firm owned by George’s brother Philip – according to the task force, took part in “unregistered lobbying” by inserting several provisions into the 2013 legislation enacting the multi-billion dollar Grow New Jersey tax breaks, so as to benefit clients of the law firm.
The task force unearthed allegations earlier this month that corporations, businesses and lobbying firms – including the four plaintiffs – with strong ties to Norcross crafted the Grow NJ program to benefit themselves or unethically win the lion’s share of the tax breaks for moving to Camden.
Murphy unveiled the task force in January after an audit which found that the Economic Development Authority, tasked with overseeing the program, failed to thoroughly vet recipients of billions of dollars of tax credits awarded between 2005 and 2017 to make sure that they actually needed the incentives, and lacked the means to thoroughly monitor compliance with the program.
That effort has never been about one person, one company, or one city. It is about ensuring that the tax incentive programs are operated to the benefit of everyone in New Jersey, not just a select, connected few.
– Darry Isherwood, spokesperson for the governor’s office
The first two counts of the suit allege that the task force has no authority to investigate the Economic Development Authority – tasked with overseeing Grow NJ – or how it awarded the tax breaks and maintained compliance with the program.
The third count alleges that the task force has not allowed the plaintiffs the chance to publicly address or defend themselves against the allegations brought by the task force at any of its meetings.
“If you are going to besmirch people’s names, [if] you’re going to call them names and introduce evidence and have people testify against them, they have the basic rights to confront them, have their attorneys present and present evidence on their own behalf,” Edward Stern, the attorney for Cooper, said in a conference call with reporters.
“Plaintiffs, four of whom have made an enormous investment in the revitalization of Camden, one of America’s poorest cities, have been falsely and publicly accused of misconduct regarding the tax incentives that lawfully attend such investment and have been denied a fair opportunity to refute those defamatory accusations,” the suit reads.
“The Task Force on EDA Incentives was formed as the result of a report from the State Comptroller, who was appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie, detailing a lack of accountability and oversight in the state’s tax incentive programs,” Darry Isherwood, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said in a statement.
“That effort has never been about one person, one company, or one city. It is about ensuring that the tax incentive programs are operated to the benefit of everyone in New Jersey, not just a select, connected few,” he added. “We look forward to vigorously defending the task force, its investigation, and the actions of this administration in court.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, is one of Norcross’s most powerful allies in the state Legislature and a sometimes bitter political rival of Murphy’s.
The governor’s scrutiny into how tax breaks went to Camden has been viewed as a proxy attack by Murphy against Sweeney and Norcross.
Sweeney has shown a desire to continue Grow NJ when it expires on July 1, although Murphy wants to let the programs lapse and be replaced with a set of five new incentives.
He formed his own similarly-natured legislative task force, armed with subpoena power, earlier in May.
“We intend to fully cooperate” with the committee, Stern said. “We will go to any ends and any extremes to provide any information which is relevant to a lawfully, publicly conducted [committee].”
“None of these rights have been granted to anybody who has been talked about,” he added.
The fourth count alleges that task force counsel Jim Walden of Walden Macht & Haran is not licensed to practice law in the state.
The last count alleges that because he is based in New York and out of state, Walden cannot under state law provide regular legal counsel to anyone from New Jersey, but rather, can only give occasional services.
Walden’s firm has so far billed the state $1.3 million for the legal services it performed for the task force—any of the money the state paid should be reimbursed, the suit said.
A statement from the Task Force on EDA’s Tax Incentives welcomes the opportunity to defend the Governor’s powers to establish the task force to bring full transparency to the management of the EDA and award decisions that resulted in billions of dollars in tax incentives to companies across the state.
“We are fully confident that we are acting within the bounds of the constitution and the laws of the State of New Jersey. As everyone is now well aware, we have invited all of these companies to provide fact witnesses at the next hearing. Rather than responding to that offer they have filed an unfounded lawsuit against the task force instead. The public can judge this tactic for what it is,” the Task Force said.