Democratic powerbroker George Norcross sought to impugn the credibility of the task force investigating New Jersey’s tax incentive in testimony before a Senate committee today while defending his role as a champion of Camden’s resurgence.
Norcross told senators that tax incentives for his business and for a hospital he chairs were appropriate and proper, repeating statements previously made on his behalf that the panel, named by Gov. Phil Murphy, was trying to apply 2017 standards to awards made in 2013.
He strongly supported the need for extended tax incentives for Camden and other cities by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
The 2013 Economic Opportunity Act
“It was always clear that to bring jobs back to Camden, companies would need specific incentives to entice them to tie their future to what has been named America’s most dangerous and poor city,” Norcross said. “Prior to these programs being put in place, no company of any material nature had moved and located to the city of Camden. There had been nothing but an exodus for years and decades from the city.”
Norcross denied being involved in the drafting of the Economic Opportunity Act, the 2013 bill that launched the two tax incentive programs at the center of the task force’s investigation.
“The suggestion that the legislation was merely written for four or five companies is absurd. There were scores of people involved, all over the state, who had interests in wanting to see incentive programs benefit their community, rightfully so,” Norcross said. “There were those who represented companies who wanted to see provisions included in this. The act was not designed for any one municipality.”
Philip Norcross’ law firm reportedly had significant input on the bill
In May, the New York Times reported that Kevin Sheehan, an attorney at Parker McCay, where Philip Norcross, the kingmaker’s brother, is managing partner, had significant input on the bill, at times injecting verbatim passages that created carve-outs for specific businesses in Camden.
The task force later confirmed the report, releasing publicly draft versions of the bills that showed edits made by Sheehan, who ProPublica reported was in constant communication with Gov. Chris Christie’s administration during the drafting of the bill.
Norcross claimed the task force was singling out firms in Camden in its investigation.
“One can only wonder why, out of approximately 913 incentive awards over the past several gubernatorial administrations, why has Camden been the focus?” he said. “Why have only five to seven companies all located in Camden, been the principal focus and received the largest amount of media intention? That must strike some people as odd.”
Alleged abuses by many New Jersey firms
While much of the task force investigation has been focused on the Norcross-linked firms, which include the powerbroker’s insurance firm Connor Strong & Buckelew, NFI, the Michaels Organization and the Cooper University Health System, where Norcross is chairman of the board, it has pointed to abuses allegedly committed by firms elsewhere in the state.
During its first hearing, for example, the task force heard from a witness who accused the Jersey City-based tax services company Jackson Hewitt of lying on its tax incentive application.
Still, much of the task force’s work has focused on the Camden firms.
He repeated claims that the Camden firms were not provided the opportunity to testify, saying they were given the option of providing a written statement to combat witness testimony and, at a later time, given the chance to testify under a five-minute time constraint.
“One of our notices from them came at a late hour and said, and these are my words, you have copies of the letters, ‘tomorrow we’re going to be holding a public event. Your company may or may not be subject to claims, assertions, accusations, etc., etc. If you care to comment, we’ll be happy to accept a written document from you after you’re speared publicly,’” Norcross said.
In a letter sent to reporters and the EGS Committee last week, the task force said it provided Norcross three opportunities to testify or submit a written statement.
The powerbroker also went after task force chairman Ronald Chen, a former New Jersey Public Advocate, over a tax incentive given to Rutgers University.
“When the chairman of the task force who works for Rutgers University, fails to examine his University’s own tax credit, I think it’s fair to call that award, pretending to be a housing award, into question,” Norcross said.
In 2016, lawmakers approved a bill increasing the cap on the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Grant program from $600 million to $625 million, with the difference dedicated to funding new athletic facilities on Rutgers’ flagship campuses in New Brunswick and Piscataway.
Chen, who was co-dean of Rutgers Law School at the time, teaches at the school’s Newark branch.