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State Sen. Robert W. Singer. (Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Republican staff working to get Singer off EGS Committee

Senator concerned about ethics complaint causing the appearance of conflict

By Nikita Biryukov, July 08 2019 8:46 pm

Republican Senate staffers are working to get Bob Singer off the Select Committee on Economic Growth Strategies at his request, the senator told the New Jersey Globe Monday.

Singer, the committee’s vice chairman, said he was concerned about an ethics complaint filed against him and four of the committee’s Democrats — including State Sen. Bob Smith, the committee’s chairman — creating a cloud over his work on the committee.

“I felt that since there are 13 other senators that don’t have that conflict at all, why should I bring that conflict to that committee? And that’s all I said, ‘You know what, I will excuse myself from the committee and let them appoint somebody else,’” Singer said. “Why make anything clouded or even give the sense of impropriety when there wasn’t anybody but go explain it. Once you have to explain something, you’re a loser.”

Singer said Republican Senate staff and the caucus’s counsel were working to have him removed from the committee. He said expects Senate President Steve Sweeney to accede to his request.

The senator called the complaint unfounded but worried about even the perception of a conflict.

InsiderNJ, citing an unnamed source, first reported Singer’s desire to be off the committee.

New Jersey Working Families filed an ethics complaint with the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, alleging Singer, Smith and State Sen. Joe Lagana because they had ties to insurance funds administered by affiliates of Conner Strong & Buckelew, the insurance firm of South Jersey kingmaker George Norcross.

Singer currently serves as a commissioner on the board of Ocean County’s Joint Insurance Fund.

Lagana and Smith’s law firms represent the South Bergen JIF and the Central Jersey JIF, both of which are administrated by the Conner Strong & Buckelew affiliate PERMA Risk Management Services.

“The commissioners appoint the administrator. Conner Strong has been the administrator there since it was formed 40 years ago, so it isn’t as though I appointed them,” Singer said. “They don’t pay me. We pay them, you know what I’m saying to you? So, there is no conflict”

The EGS committee convened to make review tax incentive programs meted out by the Economic Development Authority.

The task force convened by Gov. Phil Murphy to investigate abuses of the EDA’s programs named a number of firms with ties to Norcross in its preliminary report.

They say those firms, including the Cooper University Health System, where Norcross is chairman of the board, misled the EDA to win larger tax incentives.

The firms deny any impropriety.

Singer more than once said his role as the committee’s vice chairman exacerbated his fears over the perception of a conflict of interest. As vice chair, he’d have to sign off on subpoenas.

“My concern was since the group has subpoena power and, as vice chairman, I have to sign off on it, since we’re doing investigations that might or may not involve Norcross, I did not want any sense of ethical concern that maybe I was in his pocket or something else like that,” Singer said.

As the committee’s chairman, Smith is in a similar position.

Singer opted to leave the chairman’s decisions to him, adding he believed Smith would back away from the committee if he was actually conflicted.

“Everybody has their own self-esteem as to where they feel they have to be in things. I did not want to, as a person with subpoena power, question that I was in conflict,” Singer said. “That was just my feeling on it. I have to tell you something right now: I think the world of Bob Smith, and he’s an attorney — he has better insight than I do. And I know that somebody like Bob Smith, if he felt at all that there was a conflict, he certainly would walk away.”

State Sens. Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Dawn Addiego are also named in the complaint, which alleges Norcross is the senators’ political patron.

NJ Working Families state director Sue Altman is an opponent of Camden County’s Democratic Organization.

Earlier this year, the South Jersey Women for Progressive Change, where Altman sits on the board, attempted to win over the municipal committees there. They only won over Collingswood’s Democratic Committee.

The activist groups are aligned with Murphy, and frequently pushed for his policy priorities, namely the millionaire’s tax, during this year’s budget season, but Singer isn’t viewing the complaint as a slight from the governor.

“The answer is very simply: I think I’m a pretty fair-minded person, and I think Gov. Murphy thinks I’m a pretty fair-minded person. If you don’t want someone like me on the committee, ok,” Singer said. “I hate to put it this way: Do I need another meeting? I mean, this isn’t like ‘you get paid extra for it, and there’s bonuses for it.’ I did it because I was asked to do it. It was an important committee.”

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