A powerbroker whose name has been associated with New Jersey’s year-long tax incentive scandal spoke out against what he called “mistruths” from media outlets and a task force put together by the Murphy administration looking into the state’s massive corporate tax break program and incentives awarded through it to Camden businesses.
South Jersey political figure George Norcross, an executive at insurance company Conner Strong and Buckelew and board chair at Cooper University Health Care, came before lawmakers in a highly anticipated public appearance Monday, which was attended by a standing room only crowd.
Norcross has long been the center of New Jersey’s corporate tax break scandal, with various media reports and the Gov. Phil Murphy-convened task force to scrutinize the program alleging that he has ties to businesses that won $1.1 billion of the $1.6 billion of incentives awarded by the state for companies to move to Camden.
“I am here today to speak for myself, not through lawyers or spokespeople, to defend Camden and to correct many of the mischaracterizations and outright mistruths that are having a serious negative impact on the revitalization of our city,” Norcross said in his opening statement before the Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth Strategies.
The committee room was standing-room only, with demonstrators and protesters gathering at the entrance, being held back by state police.
Protesters routinely sparred with shouting matches, including progressive activist groups like New Jersey Working Families against labor unions and Camden County Democrat rank and file members, both of which were, according to InsiderNJ, bused to the hearing from South Jersey en mass.
New Jersey Working Families Executive Director Sue Altman was among the few forcibly removed from the meeting by state police – a move she argues targeted her specifically.
“I was in the back, I was texting,” Altman, a frequent critic of Norcross, lawmakers and the tax incentive program, told reporters shortly after her removal.“There was cheering going on so we booed, and I got completely pulled out of the room.” Police issued Atlman a disorderly persons offense for the incident.
Murphy took to twitter to condemn the police removal of Altman, calling it “completely outrageous and unacceptable,” and saying that “every senator on that committee owes her a direct apology.”
His office did not immediately comment on the content of the hearing.
On linchpins and needles
Norcross, is often considered one of the state’s most influential, albeit un-elected, political figures.
The Murphy administration’s task force counsel Jim Walden of Walden, Macht and Haran LLP, according to Norcross, “has exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of the law, its requirements and our applications.”
The attorneys for several companies representing Norcross-tied businesses highlighted by the Murphy administration’s task force have alleged that they were only given a total of five minutes each to address allegations against them, something that Walden and attorneys for the administration have strongly denied.
At the Senate committee hearing, Norcross presented himself as a linchpin in the revitalization of Camden – acting as a cheerleader for businesses to move their headquarters into one of the poorest, most crime-ridden cities in the country.
“Along with leaders at Cooper, other business leaders, community leaders and religious leaders, it was time for Camden to take action, it was time to address change,” he said.
Norcross strongly denied allegations by the task force that Cooper planned to move any of 353 jobs out of the state if it did not win the incentives, or that he was involved with many of the businesses that won the $1.1 billion of tax breaks.
Cooper initially said in its November 2014 application that no jobs were at risk of leaving the state without the incentives, but a month later said that 353 would move out of New Jersey, according to the task force, which argued that listed locations were bogus alternatives sited solely to boost the total award.
According to Norcross, Cooper was contacted by the Economic Development Authority which “asked for an out-of-state ‘comp’ to support its application.’ ”
Conner Strong, trucking logistics company NFI and homebuilding company The Michaels Organization won a combined $245 million tax incentive award to build and open a new office tower in Camden, known as the L3 building.
Norcross denied that he had ties to many of these businesses, “which I have no interest in and for which I have no compensation,” he said.
He told lawmakers that he “wasn’t involved in the actual drafting” of the 2013 Economic Opportunity Act creating the Grow New Jersey corporate tax breaks and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth gap financing program.
Emails presented by the task force showed that Kevin Sheehan, a lawyer at Parker McCay where George’s brother Philip is a partner, was active in crafting the bill by writing and inserting provisions that directly benefited specific businesses.
Location, location, location
Norcross also argued Conner Strong and Buckelew had “seriously considered” moving to Pennsylvania because the deal for the Camden waterfront property was “dead.”
The task force alleged that the Philadelphia alternative sites listed by the three companies on their applications were cursory locations to which they did not consider actually moving.
Norcross disputed a Politico report from August outlining how a provision of the Grow NJ legislation may have ultimately killed plans for a Camden supermarket, and denied that amendments to the incentive were made to benefit politically-connected competitors of the site.
The provision would have given tax credits to one supermarket project in the city, while disqualifying another, and ultimately neither moved into Camden. According to the Politico report and a task force Murphy put together to scrutinize the state’s tax breaks, Sheehan wrote an amendment that the tax credit could only go to retail projects in Camden or Atlantic City that were more than 150,000 square feet, with at least 50 percent occupied by a grocery store. Both reports said Parker McCay’s client, a proposed ShopRite, met the exact specifications.
On Monday, Norcross did not say why those specifications of square footage were added to the legislation.
On Friday, Walden sent Senate committee members a series of questions for Norcross, all centering on the applications submitted by Conner Strong and Buckelew, and Cooper.
Sen. Bob Smith, D-17th District, dismissed the questions as a “political stunt” and did not ask any of them to Norcross.