In the end, three years after he endured a torrent of scrutiny and pointed attacks from political opponents, Democratic power broker and businessman George E. Norcross III got his tax credits.
Conner Strong & Buckelew, the insurance brokerage Norcross leads as executive chairman, along with its two business partners in a Camden office tower, received their first installment of tax breaks in February for the nearly $245 million project.
The tax credit disbursements, which were quietly noted on a government website, came after the companies’ awards drew scrutiny from an investigative task force in 2019, fueling a heated political battle between Norcross and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
The companies and Camden officials have long argued that tax breaks for businesses moving to Camden are helping to add jobs and revitalize one of the state’s poorest cities.
Conner Strong, NFI, and the Michaels Organization “are proud to have moved their national headquarters to Camden and be part of the city’s transformation from the country’s poorest, most violent city to a place that has dramatically safer, cleaner streets and neighborhoods, constantly improving schools and a growing jobs base,” Norcross said in a statement. “The award of the tax incentives was expected, as the firms far exceeded their collective commitment to bring new jobs to the city.”
Progressive groups have criticized the corporate-incentives approach as costly and ineffective. Sue Altman, head of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and one of Norcross’ most vocal critics, called the awards “deeply disappointing.”
Insurance broker Conner Strong “has built an entire empire on the backs of fleecing taxpayers,” she said. “They’re now eating at the trough at both ends: When they charge local governments insurance premiums and when they get a free pass to avoid paying taxes.”
Although the task force investigation consumed political and media attention in 2019, at this point there’s “some distance politically,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Murphy is through his election to a second term, he said, as is Norcross ally and former State Senate president Steve Sweeney, who lost in an upset last November. ”I don’t think it’s the front-burner political issue it once was,” Rasmussen said of the tax credit awards. “This is probably seen as a safe time to push them through.”
The state granted an important approval to the three Camden tower companies in 2021, certifying that they had completed the building and relocation project agreed to with the Economic Development Authority (EDA) in 2017.
But the certification last year was still shy of getting the actual tax credits, which are given out in annual installments over 10 years. Companies can use the credits to reduce their tax bills, or sell the credits for cash.
Notice of the issued tax credits was buried in a pair of Excel spreadsheets on the EDA’s website, in a section that appears to have been updated sometime in the last three months.
The EDA’s sign-off on the first round of tax credits for the Camden tower looked anything but certain in 2019. That’s when a Murphy-appointed task force came out with searing critiques of how the incentive programs were shaped and administered during Republican Chris Christie’s administration. The investigators’ allegations ranged from unregistered lobbying and misleading statements submitted by businesses to win tax credits, to lax regulatory oversight and a culture of “getting to yes” at the EDA.
In particular, the task force focused on how companies in Norcross’ orbit influenced and benefited from legislation that greatly expanded tax breaks in 2013. The law firm Parker McCay, headed by Philip Norcross, a brother of George’s, drafted passages of the 2013 law behind the scenes, the task force found, before the firm went on to represent companies applying for tax breaks, including Conner Strong.
The task force said there were “clear red flags” about claims on applications by Conner Strong and the Camden tower partners that they would seek office space in Philadelphia if they did not win approval for tax credits to build offices in New Jersey. It referred the three companies’ awards back to the EDA for further review.
The firms denied they’d done anything wrong, and Norcross and the companies sued the governor, arguing that Murphy created the task force unlawfully. They said they were falsely accused of misconduct after making an “enormous investment” in Camden. The suit was later dismissed and it failed on appeal.
On Thursday, an EDA spokesperson said the agency had to take into account a recent court loss over tax credits it had withheld from another Camden company, Holtec International. “The EDA has appealed this decision,” the spokesperson said. “After a careful analysis of the judge’s opinion, the EDA decided to issue the tax credits to the firms whose award issuances had been put on hold. The EDA has consistently reserved the right to recapture any awards in the event of new information regarding misrepresentations or fraud.”
Norcross, in his statement, said the three companies at the tower, known as Triad1828 Centre, and their leaders “have invested more than $300 million in the city’s future, and are proud to have supported programs that benefit the community and its residents,” including the Camden Works program that “has led to the creation of hundreds of jobs for Camdenites.”
The EDA issued Conner Strong $8,623,552 worth of tax credits for the 2020 installment of the firm’s $86.2 million total award. The firm, which previously had dual headquarters in Philadelphia and Marlton, reported creating 140 new jobs in Camden and retaining 157 jobs, with a median salary of $79,000.
NFI, a logistics company, was approved for $7,866,221 in annual tax credits on its $78.7 million total award, and reported creating 78 new jobs while retaining 341, at a median salary of $77,235.
The Michaels Organization, a housing developer, received credits worth $7,555,853. The company reported 63 new jobs and 188 retained jobs in 2020, with a $134,997 median salary.
NFI and Michaels did not give additional comment.
Another Camden company scrutinized by the task force, Cooper Health System, where Norcross is board chair, started receiving its tax credits again last year, after its incentives had been placed on hold. The decision to resume issuing the credits was based on “a thorough review of the applicable facts and the law,” an EDA spokesperson told The Inquirer at the time.
Then, in late 2021, the EDA lost the court case over tax breaks it withheld from Holtec, an energy technology firm whose $260 million tax credit award to build a new facility in Camden was also cited by the task force.
In a section of its 2014 tax break application dealing with debarment, Holtec answered “no” and did not disclose that the company was debarred for 60 days in 2010 by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal entity.
The EDA did not pay out Holtec’s 2018 tax credits while it reviewed the matter, and Holtec sued. During the legal fight, the EDA argued that Holtec’s response was intentionally false, and Holtec maintained that its answer was not a misrepresentation because that part of the application was ambiguous.
On Dec. 30, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy ruled in Holtec’s favor, agreeing that the debarment section was ambiguous and ordering the EDA to pay the $26 million annual installment.