Two progressive political groups on Wednesday called on the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to investigate the dealings of the Delaware River Port Authority, concerning two parcels of land that the agency sold or optioned for development projects in Camden.
“It is time for a full accounting of the facts and to clean house in an agency that has acted for too long as a tool of special interests," wrote leaders of the two groups, New Jersey Working Families and Pennsylvania Working Families, in a letter addressed to Govs. Phil Murphy and Tom Wolf on Wednesday.
The groups also made that request in person Wednesday morning, when about a dozen activists filed into the DRPA’s 11th-floor conference room in Camden, overlooking the waterfront. Seven of them addressed the agency’s board, composed of members appointed by the governors of both states.
“There are people on the DRPA board, certainly on the New Jersey side … with very, very strong political connections and financial connections to a political machine that, in our opinion, prioritizes the lining of its own pockets and corporate interests over the interests of the public dollar and of public opinion,” said Sue Altman, state director of New Jersey Working Families.
Altman said she hoped an investigation would encompass issues related to both land and the awarding of public contracts, and made reference to a “long history of abuses and investigations from the 2010s.” In 2012, an investigation of the DRPA by New Jersey’s comptroller found that a “culture of weak policies ... contributed to wasteful spending” and mismanagement of funds.
DRPA chief executive officer John Hanson, who stepped into that role in 2014, said the agency would not be “the least bit concerned” about the prospect of an investigation.
“The DRPA has been investigated before,” Hanson said during the board meeting. "None of those investigations have ever produced anything, and I’m confident that that’s what any impartial investigating body would determine yet again.”
The letter follows an Inquirer article, published last month, that detailed how South Jersey political power broker George E. Norcross III came to acquire a three-acre parking lot near the Camden waterfront. Both the DRPA and the Camden Redevelopment Agency held rights to the land, which was appraised at $2.3 million.
The DRPA’s interest in the land was appraised at $800,000, and in 2016 the agency sold the parcel for that amount to Liberty Property Trust, the onetime developer of a major waterfront project fueled by a controversial state tax-credit program. Liberty later sold the land to Norcross and his business partners for $350,000.
The DRPA’s share of air rights crossing adjacent property was appraised at $1.45 million, and the agency received $500,000 from Liberty Property Trust to terminate those rights.
Hanson has defended the sale price of the land, and said the agency’s ownership interest in the lot was “very specific”: It was tied to an abandoned tram project, and the land was scheduled to revert to the Camden Redevelopment Agency in 2026.
As for the air-rights transaction, Hanson said the DRPA was also relieved of costly obligations tied to the original tram project.
Hanson previously told The Inquirer he did not know Norcross was involved in the company that would eventually buy the three-acre parking lot.
An attorney for Norcross has described the $350,000 purchase as part of a “swap” with Liberty, in which Norcross and his partners gave up their parking rights on another lot.
In their letter Wednesday, the Working Families groups cited a second piece of DRPA-owned land — one that was contemplated for a supermarket development in Camden. The city is one of the poorest in New Jersey, and is considered a food desert.
DRPA board minutes in 2014 show that the agency owned "approximately 9 acres of the 22 acres that comprise the development site” for a proposed ShopRite along Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
The supermarket was never built, however; nor was a competing grocery store proposal. A report by Politico last August raised questions about whether that competing proposal was effectively blocked by provisions in the 2013 tax-credit law — legislation that was championed by Norcross and written, in part, by the law firm Parker McCay. The firm is headed by George’s brother Philip Norcross.
The tax-credit legislation, Politico reported, would have enabled the ShopRite to qualify for a tax-incentive award but not the competing proposal.
George Norcross and his political allies have since pushed back fiercely on the supermarket story, amid a swirl of investigations and media reports about the tax-credit program. Both proposed projects failed due to market forces, a spokesperson for State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a close Norcross ally, said last summer.
According to Politico, Philip Norcross’ law firm represented the ShopRite project. The Working Families letter notes that the law firm does work for the DRPA, as well.
“The parcel sits undeveloped today — a testament to the failures of insider dealings at the DRPA to deliver benefits to Camden residents,” the letter says.
At Wednesday’s DRPA meeting, Camden County NAACP president Kevin Barfield appealed to board members for the agency’s help “to see how we can move forward with making the supermarket happen.”
Why should residents "have to go outside the city to get fresh foods?” Barfield asked.
Hanson, along with two other board members, emphasized that the DRPA is no longer permitted to fund economic development projects — a reform measure after public outcry about the agency’s spending on projects like the failed aerial tram to connect Camden and Philadelphia.
Hanson said that the original developer of the supermarket site holds an option on the parcel until the end of the year. The agency has to get "fair value” from anyone who buys it, he said.