Powerful Democrat blasts Gov. Murphy and his wife. ‘He thinks he’s the King of England and Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England.’

Updated May 8, 2019

George Norcross III, the South Jersey Democratic power broker long at odds with the governor, has declared all-out war on Phil Murphy, calling him a “liar” and “politically incompetent.”

After enduring a steady drumbeat of criticism over how his company and other entities tied to him allegedly benefitted from lucrative tax incentives meant to help revive the city of Camden, Norcross went on the attack. He lambasted a special governor’s task force deployed to investigate the New Jersey Economic Development Authority in connection with those tax incentives, as well as the governor.

At issue are millions of dollars in state funding that was earmarked for one of the state’s poorest cities, and questions over whether Norcross and his companies profited, or at least tipped the scales to funnel that funding behind the scenes by threatening to move jobs out of state that were never in danger of being shifted.

Norcross defended the tax incentives and the efforts to bring more money to Camden, the epicenter of his vast statewide influence.

“Do I think there is anything wrong with them going and advocating for, trying to affect or to offer legislation for the benefit of themselves and their client? Absolutely nothing inappropriate as long as they comply with the law. Nothing. Zero,” he said, in a wide-ranging phone interview that lasted nearly an hour and a half. “We busted our asses to do everything we could to get companies to come to American’s most dangerous city and its poorest city. What the hell is wrong with that, as long as you comply with the law?

At the same time, he claimed he had been clearly targeted by Murphy as part of an escalating political feud between the state’s North and South.

“This was a designed strategy,” declared Norcross, a potent force in politics for decades with a reach far beyond the South. “The administration wanted to strike back at South Jersey, me, (Senate President) Steve Sweeney (and) other Democrats in South Jersey.”

At the same time, he said the governor had no clear strategy going forward.

“What’s the end game for this guy?” he asked. “Well, I’m telling you: He thinks he’s the King of England and Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England, and they don’t have to answer to anybody. And they’ve gone out there recklessly, stupidly and incompetently time and time again.”

Norcross’s reference to the governor’s wife was a not-so-subtle jab at First Lady Tammy Murphy, who some political observers have privately referred to as the “co-governor” because of her powerful role in the Murphy’s administration.

The governor’s office did not respond directly to Norcross, but defended the task force investigation of the EDA.

“The independent task force was formed in the wake of a scathing audit from the state comptroller that questioned the program’s administration and whether the state and its taxpayers were getting promised jobs and economic development. It is not political in nature and should remain free from partisan or political interference. From inception, its mission has been protecting taxpayer money and ensuring that every dollar is accounted for and that the State’s incentive programs are free from self-dealing or corruption. The task force will continue its work and will not be affected by attempts to intimidate or derail it,” said spokesman Darryl Isherwood in a statement.

A SMEAR CAMPAIGN?

Norcross gave a full-throated defense of his companies as well as the EDA itself, and angrily derided the governor’s task force investigating New Jersey’s tax incentive programs as a “McCarthy-like” commission seeking only to smear people. He also criticized the commission for not permitting those in its sights to defend themselves.

His comments marked his first public response to disclosures made at a EDA Task Force hearing last week in Newark that focused almost exclusively on how tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives had been awarded to companies and a non-profit associated with Norcross in Camden, where is chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew, an insurance brokerage, and chairman of Cooper Health System.

Two other companies, NFI Industries and The Michaels Organization, have partnered with Conner Strong, an insurance brokerage, to build a new headquarters they will share in Camden with the help of the state tax incentives.

Attorneys for the task force also spelled out how Kevin Sheehan, an attorney at Parker McCay, the law firm run by Norcross’ brother, Philip, played a major role in re-writing the draft legislation that would become New Jersey’s amended tax incentive law — benefitting a number of that firm’s clients.

His response also came on the heels of reports last week by WNYC and ProPublica, and the New York Times, which separately reported on how EDA incentives helped Norcross projects in Camden and other clients of Parker McKay.

The Times reported that as a result of the 2013 legislation, George Norcross’s insurance firm received approval for an $86.2 million tax credit to relocate to an 18-story office tower in Camden.

WNYC and ProPublica reported that of the $1.6 billion in tax breaks for companies that agreed to make a capital investment in Camden, at least $1.1 billion went to Burinesses or charities connected to Norcross or people in his orbit.

Norcross, in the interview Wednesday said many interests were seeking to affect changes in the legislation.

“Why is it that we were the only companies picked out of hundreds? … It’s because this was a carefully designed plan to attack, smear and destroy a good number of people,” he said.

He added that the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2016 investigated the awarded of state tax credits to Conner Strong & Buckelew, and ultimately did not take any action in the case. The inquiry was headed by assistant U.S. attorney Lee Cortes Jr., one of the prosecutors in the Bridgegate corruption scandal. In a September 2018 letter to Michael Critchley, who is representing Norcross, the office said that “based on a review of the applicable law and evidence obtained during the investigation, we have concluded that no further action is warranted. Accordingly, this matter has been closed.”

The federal investigation, though, would not have focused on any alleged violations of state law.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said he is conducting a state investigation into the EDA tax incentive programs. In an interview earlier this week with a Star-Ledger editorial board, Grewal said while his office typically does not comment on investigations, their interest was sparked by the state comptroller’s office report into the EDA.

“We’re going to use whatever civil tools and criminal tools we have to hold people accountable,” he said.

A CRITICAL REPORT

The EDA Task Force was formed by Murphy earlier this year came after a highly critical audit by the state comptroller in January, which found fault with the EDA’s management of a program that has given out tax credit incentives worth $11 billion since its inception.

The comptroller concluded that the state agency, which is responsible for spearheading New Jersey’s economic development efforts, may have “improperly awarded, miscalculated, overstate and overpaid” tax credits to a number of companies that it could not verify had created the jobs that were promised. It also said the EDA could not evaluate whether its inventive programs generated any economic benefits to the state, and had certified projects and released tax credits even when projects did not meet the requirements, in violation of the law.

The major incentive programs — the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program — are set to expire in July unless renewed by the Legislature.

Ronald Chen, the chairman of the commission, said the task force has already identified nine “companies of concern.” He added more than three dozen companies have agreed to participate in an accelerated program to re-certify their incentive awards.

A STATE OF WAR

Should a political war between Norcross and Murphy spiral out of control, it would reach far beyond Trenton, where the South Jersey boss and his ally, Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, have enough political power to derail major parts of Murphy’s agenda.

The governor wants recreational marijuana and to bump the tax rate on people who earn more than $1 million a year. He campaigned on both issues. But he needs the Legislature’s support to get them enacted.

Sweeney, along with state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Hudson, are publicly opposed to the millionaires’ tax. If both sides dig in and refuse to move, the state could be staring down the barrel of a government shutdown beginning July 1 — when a budget needs to be passed and signed.

The chances of getting recreational pot, meanwhile, already looked dim before the public spat. Currently, its prospects look increasingly grim as it lacks enough votes in Sweeney’s Senate.

Norcross said the rift between the governor and himself go back to the days of candidate Murphy, when Norcross argued members of his political team tried to oust Sweeney out of his powerful leadership position in the state Senate. Murphy’s team has denied the claim they tried to launch a coup against Sweeney. What’s undeniable, however, is the state’s largest teachers’ union, the NJEA, spent millions in 2017 to boost Sweeney’s opponent in his re-election bid. The effort failed and Sweeney kept his position as state Senate president.

Norcross insisted Murphy and his aides were behind both efforts.

“It’s very difficult to understand the mind that has no end game,” Norcross said. “A mind that has no strategic plan in what they’re trying to do and a mind that politically would be so incompetent as to think that they could dislodge Steve Sweeney as the president of the Senate. … It seemed like a suicide mission. And if you’re going to go after the king, you kill the king.”

He charged that Murphy’s political team had decided that they were going to show the president of the Senate and the new speaker who was boss and who was the most powerful governor in the country.

“Their strategy going into the new governorship was going to be ‘we’re not going to have legislative leaders deciding policy here. The governor is going to call the shots,’” he said.

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