The state Legislature’s top Democrat said he plans to convene a legislative committee, armed with subpoena power, to scrutinize the Economic Development Authority’s lucrative, multi-billion dollar tax break program, setting up a showdown with a similarly-natured task force the Murphy administration put together in January.
“We want to get to the bottom of everything to see what was right, what’s wrong and what we can do better,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, told reporters Thursday afternoon in the statehouse.
“We’ll be putting a committee together that will really delve in and take a deep dive in this, and will allow both sides to come forward and explain things,” Sweeney added.
Last week, the Governor’s task force unearthed allegations that businesses with strong ties to insurance executive and South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross were able to obtain the better part of $1.6 billion of tax breaks that went to businesses moving into Camden. The task force also unearthed allegations that Kevin Sheehan, partner at Parker McKay, a law firm owned by George Norcross’ brother Phil Norcross, crafted parts of the Grow NJ legislation to benefit clients.
Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled his task force on the heels of a January audit from the state comptroller which found that the EDA failed to thoroughly vet recipients of billions of dollars of tax credits that were awarded between 2005 and 2017, and lacked the means to thoroughly monitor compliance with the program.
Sweeney lambasted the tax force as “McCarthyism.”
But both he and Murphy denied that the tax break controversies were, in reality, a proxy war between the Murphy camp and the Sweeney-Norcross camp on the other hand.
He said the proposal for a task force initially came from Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean and Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, both D-21st District.
A joint statement last week called for hearings by a legislative panel convened by Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, to “conduct a thorough, timely and objective review of the authority’s incentive programs and the ways in which the state has achieved positive economic outcomes for both the business community and the taxpayer.”
“It’s like a McCarthy trial, they won’t let the people they’re accusing testify in public, they have to submit written documentation,” Sweeney said.
Indeed, the lawyers for five separate businesses highlighted last week in the task force alleged in a seven-page letter to the task force that Murphy overstepped his legal authority by creating the group and has imposed “arbitrary restrictions” on their right to respond to “false accusations” by the administration.
The Monday letter is signed by attorneys for The Michaels Organization, Conner Strong & Buckelew, Cooper University Health Care, Parker McKay and NFI, highlighted as clients of Sheehan, saying the task force is “political retribution” and a “one-sided investigation.”
The legal team includes former New Jersey Attorney General Chirs Porrino, New Jersey Legislature attorney Mike Chritchley, former Bridgegate defense lawyer Kevin Marino and former U.S. Homeland Security Chief Mike Chertoff.
They are demanding the corporations that they represent are given the chance “to submit a public presentation” to the task force at its next hearing, and that they are given an opportunity to “publicly confront” their accusers.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office could not be reached for comment.