After a failed court bid to halt the work of an investigative task force last month, lawyers for George E. Norcross III made a renewed public push Thursday to argue that companies and a hospital linked to the South Jersey power broker have been unfairly maligned by investigators.
The legal team continued to rebut allegations that four organizations tied to Norcross submitted problematic applications for New Jersey tax breaks – collectively worth nearly $300 million in tax breaks.
Allegations that Cooper University Health Care deceived a state agency “are so bizarre that one has to ask the question: ‘how did we get to this point?’” said lawyer Herbert Stern, who represents Cooper, where Norcross chairs the board of trustees.
The task force, appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, was “designed to investigate Norcross,” Stern said during a conference call with reporters.
Norcross, and his insurance brokerage Conner Strong & Buckelew – along with Cooper and other firms – are suing Murphy, claiming the task force was created unlawfully.
But they were unable to keep the task force from releasing its initial findings in June. The report pointed to evidence of “significant problems” with four applications, as well as extraordinary influence wielded by the law firm Parker McCay during the drafting of the 2013 tax credit legislation. Parker McCay is led by Norcross’ brother Philip.
The companies have vigorously and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, while alleging that the investigation is a politically motivated attack.
“We have been trying to provide sunlight on this,” said Michael Critchley, a lawyer for Norcross and Conner Strong.
This week, Conner Strong submitted a 17-page rebuttal of the task force report to the state’s Economic Development Authority (EDA). Cooper sent its own response to the EDA last week.
“[T]he award of tax credits to [Conner Strong] by the EDA was, and remains to this date, proper and appropriate,” Heather A. Steinmiller, Conner Strong’s general counsel, wrote in the letter.
The task force declined to comment on the letter.
Norcross’ lawyers rejected the task force’s suggestion that Conner Strong may have misled state officials by stating on its application that it was considering moving jobs to Philadelphia if it didn’t win the New Jersey tax breaks.
Investigators said Norcross’ statements in 2015, about investing in a real estate project in Camden, indicated he was already planning to move his company there before it applied for the credits in 2016. The report also said Philip Norcross’ involvement in writing the Camden-focused legislation ought to have raised suspicion about whether his brother’s insurance brokerage was seriously considering Philadelphia.
But Philly offered a “golden” opportunity for the future of the company, whose workforce was split between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said Critchley. It would have been substantially cheaper to rent office space in Philadelphia, compared with building a new facility in Camden.
“The idea that those jobs were not potentially at risk is preposterous,” Critchley said.
As for the Camden investment possibility, Critchley said, Norcross “was committed to participating with Liberty Property Trust in their efforts to revitalize Camden," but not to moving his offices there.
Norcross’ lawyers also said the task force had erred in asserting that public funds were being used to subsidize a helipad on the roof of Conner Strong’s new headquarters on the Camden waterfront.
In a letter to the Economic Development Authority, Conner Strong said its initial application for tax credits did include a helipad in its project description, but the company later amended its project. Conner Strong said that the helipad was built with private funds, and that the company has authorized first responders to use it when needed for emergencies.