Parsing the blood feud as Norcross sinks teeth into Murphy | Moran

Updated May 9, 2019

George Norcross was furious when he called to say he was ready to drop all restraint and go public with his scathing personal views on Gov. Phil Murphy after two years of holding back. This time it was personal.

But I didn’t expect it to be this personal?

Here are some of the choice words he used to describe Murphy’s behavior, during a 90-minute interview on Wednesday: Stupid, Dishonest, Reckless. Incompetent.

“I’ve never seen an individual who is despised as much within his own party,” said Norcross, the overlord of politics in South Jersey. “He thinks he’s the King of England. And Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England!”

One time, he said, he knew Murphy was lying about his secret role in the effort to defeat Norcross’s key ally and childhood friend, Senate President Steve Sweeney, in the 2017 election. But he asked the governor about it, anyway.

“He lied to me and told me he was not involved -- golly shucks, full stop, I love Steve Sweeney,” Norcross said. “I knew he was lying through his teeth, but I needed to look him in the eye and see that.”

If this were a marriage, folks, it would be time to remove all guns from the home.

Maybe you don’t care about these guys much. But you should know that nothing in New Jersey can get done without their agreement. Property taxes, school funding, marijuana, NJ Transit -- all of it.

Sweeney has the Constitutional power to block any law, by himself. He can also block any major appointment that Murphy wants to make, from the Supreme Court to the Port Authority. If that’s not enough, the Norcross-Sweeney faction in the Legislature is unified, and the most powerful bloc in both the Senate and Assembly.

So, this really isn’t about them. It’s about us.

What’s got Norcross so verklempt? It’s Murphy’s investigation of the dark secrets behind the enormous corporate tax credits that have sparked an investment boom in Camden, while richly benefitting Norcross, his family and his allies. The law was muscled through the Legislature by Norcross, who has received two big subsidies for firms he controls. It was sponsored in the Senate by his brother, Donald, now a Congressman.

And portions were written by a law partner of another brother, Phil, a lobbyist and lawyer, who has vacuumed up business from companies that want credits and know that he holds the golden key. So far, according to a New York Times investigation, clients of Phil have won credits totaling $769 million, a mind-boggling sum.

Norcross has gone all out to sabotage this investigation, which he sees as a political hit job by Murphy. He hired a dream team of lawyers to pick at every angle, and enlisted allies to denounce the investigation as an attack on Camden. His lawyers challenge the governor’s authority to even investigate the Economic Development Authority. They say the task force has no power to issue subpoenas. They say the head lawyer should be disqualified because his practice is based in New York. And so on.

I won’t walk you through the legal back and forth on that, but I suffered through it, and was mostly unconvinced. The task force chairman is Rutgers Prof. Ron Chen, a do-gooder who served as public advocate and board member at the ACLU. He’s not a political hit man; he’s a cuddly professor type, known for his integrity.

What these attacks tell us is that Norcross is worried about what this task force will find. It is clearly interested in Norcross himself, and whether he exaggerated the risk that jobs might move out of state in order to secure credits, or increase their size, for both Cooper University Hospital, where he serves as chairman of the board, and for his insurance firm, Conner, Strong & Buckelew. Norcross denies any fraud, but the task force is just getting started.

Murphy cannot back off at this stage. He campaigned on this issue, and we’ve learned much more since then. A 2008 Rutgers study found that Camden was getting way too much, and a New York Times investigationfound some Camden subsidies amounted to $65,000 per year. Earlier this year, the state auditor found that the EDA is not checking to see that firms actually hire the people they promise to hire, before getting their checks. And a joint investigation from WNYC and Pro Publica found that a lobbyist working with Phil Norcross inserted midnight clauses into the bill that were drafted to benefit specific clients, some of which he then represented.

We’ll see about the fire, but the smoke is dense enough to choke on.

Still, I worry that Murphy is sleep-walking into a buzz saw that he might have avoided with a more even-handed approach. He has supported corporate subsidies, for Goldman Sachs in Jersey City when he was pushing them himself, and for Amazon just last year as governor. Yet his rhetoric against the credits that helped Camden is blistering -- and hypocritical.

“This is about wasted money, phantom jobs, squandered opportunities and misplaced priorities,” Murphy said in his State of the State speech. “This is about a failed status quo and a broken system.”

But not when it comes to Goldman Sachs or Amazon? Hmm.

And while the task force has done good work, it has put a thumb on the scale in the early stages by taking public testimony from critics, but not allowing the companies under scrutiny to take a stand. They are allowed to submit written affidavits and may get a chance to testify later. Why not let them answer when they are accused?

In addition, the task force twice invited testimony from researchers with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal advocacy group that has led the charge against these credits for years. It has not extended the same courtesy to supporters of the program, at least so far.

“This was a designed strategy,” Norcross says. “They did a very good job of smearing me and smearing my brother.”

Norcross says he welcomes an impartial investigation by the state Attorney General, or the state comptroller, or some neutral body. Federal prosecutors in Newark spent about seven months last year investigating tax credits won by Conner Strong, but in September issued a statement saying they had closed the investigation without charges.

“Doesn’t it mean anything?” Norcross fumes. “They examined every single document we had. They asked us every one of these questions, and rightly so.”

His investments in Camden, he says, are risky. “I put my money where my mouth is,” he says. “We busted our asses to do everything we could…And what the hell is wrong with that, as long as you’re doing it in compliance with the law?”

This week’s spleen venting was a first for Norcross. He has talked publicly about policy in the last few years, usually focused on Camden But never this kind of personal purging. He prefers to pull the levers from behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz.

What changed? I remember talking to him 10 years ago at lunch about his life and his ambitions. He had plenty of money by then, and plenty of power. But he didn’t want to be remembered as a brass-knuckled political boss, which is exactly where he knew his obituary was headed. He wanted more, and he told me he hoped to honor his father by working to lift up Camden, a city where his father was a respected union leader who sat on the board of Cooper University Hospital before him.

Norcross was emotional, and I was skeptical. But he proved me wrong in the last decade. He’s done remarkable work in Camden to improve public safety and public schools, and to finally lure investors with these tax credits. He still uses the brass knuckles, but he is building a legacy in Camden that impresses me, and no doubt would impress his dad.

“My brothers and I idolized my dad,” he said this week. “What he impressed upon us all, and me being eldest, was the responsibility to your family, the unconditional loyalty to family, and your community.”

Does he think Murphy is now tarnishing that legacy? “He already has done that,” Norcross said. “But you take a licking and keep on ticking… I’m not going to rest.”

I don’t know who is going to win this fight between the two most powerful people in New Jersey. But the personal poison is likely to cripple our state government, so I’m pretty sure who is going to lose: You, and me.

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