TRENTON — South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III shot back against claims that he manipulated New Jersey’s controversial tax incentive program for his benefit at a state Senate hearing Monday, during which his most prominent critic was dragged out of the room by state troopers.
Norcross, a Camden-based insurance executive, has for months been at the center of the political struggle over the future of a program that offers state tax credits to businesses that locate in distressed cities.
In June, members of a New Jersey task force investigating the tax incentives found that firms with ties to Norcross may have misled state officials by indicating that if they did not receive tax credits, they would move jobs to alternate locations in Philadelphia. Norcross’ insurance brokerage and several allied companies reaped $245 million in tax credits in 2017 to build an office tower in Camden.
Norcross denied wrongdoing Monday, as he and the other firms had done previously.
Tensions were high before the hearing. Protesters, wearing buttons saying “Camden Makes, Norcross Takes,” greeted Norcross’ entrance into the committee room with calls of “Down with King George” flowing right into chants of “FBI, FBI.” The Inquirer has reported that the FBI is investigating the corporate tax-incentive program.
The chairman of the special Senate committee, Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), issued a warning at the outset: “Be advised, if you want to shout, or boo, or act in a disorderly way, I’m authorizing the state troopers that are here ... you can escort them out.”
Shortly after, a few boos erupted, and Smith ordered police to clear “the back row.” Instead, they went to the side of the room, where they selected activist Sue Altman, a leading Norcross critic, for removal. “I was texting,” Altman said. “They were trying to silence critics.”
She said she was shaken by the experience. “I can’t believe how aggressive [it was] having four white male cops physically remove you from a space,” Altman said. “I’m pretty tough, and it was pretty shaky.” She was issued a citation for disorderly conduct and is expected to appear in a Trenton court Tuesday.
Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Democrat running for President, tweeted out her outrage at Altman’s removal, saying “I stand with her.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who appointed the task force and has been at odds with Norcross, said Altman’s ejection was “completely outrageous and unacceptable, and every senator on that committee owes her an apology.”
The New Jersey state police did not respond to a request for comment.
Leland Moore, spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, said: “We deeply respect the rights of our citizens to attend public hearings and have their voices heard. In the coming days, our department intends to discuss with Chairman Smith his decision to direct state troopers to remove individuals from the hearing room.”
He added that the state police also will review the troopers’ conduct.
Norcross was unfazed, sipping a bottle of water amid the commotion before beginning his testimony.
“I am here today to speak for myself — not through lawyers or spokespeople — to defend Camden and correct the many misstatements, mischaracterizations, and outright mistruths that are having a serious negative impact on the revitalization of the city,” Norcross said.
Norcross said he and his business partners have invested $300 million in the city, which includes a gleaming new waterfront. He said the tax incentive program is just a part of a plan to improve Camden’s attractiveness to companies looking to relocate. The other parts include better schools and a city that is safer under a reorganized police force.
“Camden is the safest it has been in 50 years,” Norcross said.
“No, it’s not,” a protester responded.
More than $1.1 billion of the $1.6 billion in tax incentive money earmarked for Camden went to Norcross-affiliated companies, according to a WNYC and ProPublica investigation. He was instrumental in the legislation’s 2013 passage.
Lawmakers briefly questioned Norcross, and in mostly friendly terms. Multiple lawmakers on the committee, including the chairman, were named in a now-dismissed ethics complaint filed by Altman alleging they have close financial ties to the South Jersey party boss.
Eleven other individuals, mostly CEOs and heads of nonprofits, were asked to testify on how the tax incentive program could be improved.
Some, like Charles Wowkanech, president of New Jersey’s AFL-CIO, said the program was a boon to New Jersey’s struggling communities and should continue.
There’s a “multiplier effect of this investment,” he said, “this type of stimulus reaches into every aspect of the community.”
Others suggested changes.
“When companies succeed, so too should the citizens who’ve lived marginalized,” said Richard Smith, president of the NAACP’s New Jersey State Conference.
He suggested the next iteration of the program should emphasize job creation and employment training for residents of the poor New Jersey cities where the tax credits are used.
“There’s no better social program in this world than a job,” Smith said.
The program has been allowed to expire, but the governor has been at a standoff with top Democrats on how to replace it.
Murphy wants a cap on tax incentives targeted to small businesses and start-ups in certain sectors. Other Democrats want something similar to the old program, with added accountability and transparency.
According to one high-level legislative source, a compromise is still being discussed.