Former Gov. Chris Christie defended the corporate tax break program he signed into law and dismissed his successor’s task force scrutinizing the incentives as a “political charade,” even as a federal investigation mounts into how tax breaks were awarded, with a focus on Camden.
“The goal of the Grow [New Jersey] program in Camden was to bring more private sector businesses and jobs to Camden. That’s exactly what it’s done,” Christie told reporters following his first-ever Christie Institute of Public Policy lecture, held with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the Seton Hall Law School in Newark on Thursday.
The Eastern District of Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation Philadelphia office have both been interviewing witnesses over the past month in connection with the Grow New Jersey corporate tax breaks, according to a report this week from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Federal authorities are reportedly interested in the recent economic development in Camden, fueled by $1.6 billion of Grow New Jersey corporate tax breaks, $1.1 billion of which went to political powerbroker George Norcross, arguably the state’s most powerful unelected official – based in South Jersey.
It is not clear whether Norcross or any of the companies have been contacted by federal authorities. Daniel Fee, a spokesperson for Norcross said that “[He] has not been notified personally of any new investigation.”
Norcross in 2016 had his phones tapped by federal authorities, who eventually concluded that no further investigation of him was warranted.
Christie told reporters that he believed nothing would come of the investigation by federal authorities in Philadelphia.
“The attorney’s office in New Jersey did a complete investigation of that tax credit program and came to the conclusion that everything was done legally and properly,” Christie said.
The task force Gov. Phil Murphy put together has alleged that many businesses close to Norcross unfairly and unethically won large tax breaks for moving to Camden, either by providing bogus information on their applications about out-of-state locations, or having portions of the program crafted to benefit themselves.
One such business was with a questionable out-of-state alternative was Cooper University Health, where Norcross is an executive, according to the task force. Cooper was the recipient of a nearly $40 million award and recently hired Abbe Lowell, according to a Politico report this week.
Christie, who signed Grow NJ into law in 2013, shot back at the task force, saying that Murphy had been using it to “distract from the fact that the major things that he ran on, he simply hasn’t accomplished, even though he has a Legislature of his own party.”
“That why they set up a separate commission. That’s why they take lawyers from New York and ship them here, to throw bombs and do all the rest of it and make news,” the Republican former governor added.
Grow NJ advocates and Camden officials have often pointed to the once-decrepit waterfront business district, which has seen been transformed thanks to new anchor institutions such as Holtec International, the Philadelphia 76ers and Subaru of America.
“[Grow NJ] was specifically designed, after the first program, the [Economic Redevelopment and Growth] program, which wound up seeing that 85 percent of the money was spent in the northern counties,” Christie added. “The 2013 bill was specifically designed to remedy that imbalance of funding.”
“It’s not surprising to see Governor Christie defend yet another failed pillar of his legacy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. New Jersey residents long ago caught onto the economic failures marked by Governor Christie’s administration. He’s not fooling anyone anymore,” Darryl Isherwood, spokesperson for the governor’s office said.