TRENTON — A New Jersey judge on Monday refused to grant a request by South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III to halt an inquiry launched by Gov. Phil Murphy into the state’s tax incentive programs.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson said a task force appointed by Murphy may continue its investigation into the state Economic Development Authority’s administration of the multibillion-dollar programs, and suggested it was “absurd” to think the governor lacked authority to probe such an important entity.
The task force has been investigating in part whether companies tied to Norcross misled the EDA about plans to move jobs out of New Jersey if they weren’t awarded tax credits. Norcross and the companies have said they did nothing wrong.
In 2017, the EDA awarded $245 million in tax credits to Norcross’ insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, and two other companies to build an office tower on the Camden waterfront. The companies also pledged to bring jobs to the city.
Norcross sued last month seeking to disband the task force, arguing that Murphy, a Democrat, lacked the authority to create it.
The task force was to hold another public hearing and release a report about its initial findings this week, but it delayed those plans after Norcross asked the judge for a preliminary injunction until she could rule on the litigation.
“Frankly, the public interest is that this task force be allowed to report before there’s a vote in the Legislature,” Jacobson said, reading her opinion from the bench.
“It may not affect the legislators one way or the other,” she said, noting that the incentives programs expire July 1. But she added, “I think the public has the right to know what the task force has found so they can contact their legislators.”
Shortly after Jacobson announced her decision, the task force released its report. It said companies linked to Norcross were awarded tens of millions of dollars more than they would have been had the EDA conducted better due diligence.
In a statement Monday evening, a spokesperson for Norcross and the other plaintiffs said: “Our litigation has never been about blocking an investigation, but rather to ensure that the Governor’s Task Force gave each firm basic due process rights, including the opportunity to present fully the facts about their companies, their applications, and their decisions to move to Camden. Each of these companies has only ever requested a fair hearing and it is clear that was never going to happen with the Governor’s Task Force.”
The statement said the plaintiffs intended to participate in the Legislature’s review of the incentive programs. It said they would “fully cooperate in their review just as we are already cooperating with the state Attorney General’s office in its inquiry."
“There is a great story to tell about Camden, why these firms are moving or expanding there, and the process each followed to be approved for tax incentives,” the statement said.
In court on Monday, Norcross and other plaintiffs argued they would face irreparable harm to their reputations if the task force proceeds. Norcross’ lawyers say the task force and news media have portrayed him and others as having defrauded taxpayers.
Murphy’s lawyers countered that the governor had the power to create the task force and that ruling in Norcross’ favor would hinder deliberations among the governor and lawmakers over how they should change the incentives programs before they expire in two weeks.
The judge expressed skepticism over the idea that Murphy lacked the authority to investigate the EDA, noting he has the power to veto its board votes.
“There’s a certain absurdity in” that line of thinking, she said during more than three hours of oral argument.
The EDA is “important to the operation of state government and state policy and so forth,” Jacobson added. “It’s somewhat counterintuitive to think the governor didn’t have investigatory powers to look into problems” that had been identified by the state auditor and later the comptroller.
Michael Critchley, an attorney for Norcross, conceded that might be true. But he argued the Legislature established the EDA as an independent entity insulated from gubernatorial investigations.
Critchley pointed to a similar agency, the Council on Affordable Housing, which then-Gov. Chris Christie tried to abolish.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Christie didn’t have the power to do so.
Jacobson said she wasn’t persuaded by that argument.
Monday’s hearing came amid mounting tensions between Murphy and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Lawmakers are vowing to send Murphy a budget that does not include the governor’s request for higher taxes on millionaires. The budget must be signed into law by the end of the month to avoid a government shutdown.
Democratic lawmakers also are considering legislation that would temporarily extend the same tax-incentive programs now under scrutiny. Murphy has vowed to veto that.
Ted Wells, Murphy’s lead outside counsel, said that granting the injunction would be a “radical, unprecedented” move that would unleash chaos in government.
“If they’re right, any citizen cannot not only hold up a task force, they can hold up a legislative hearing,” Wells told the judge. “They are talking about a radical change in how government operates.”
Joining Norcross in the lawsuit were Conner Strong and its business partners, the Michaels Organization and NFI; Cooper University Health Care, for which Norcross chairs the board of trustees; and Parker McCay, a law firm whose chief executive is Norcross’ brother Philip.
To win an injunction, Norcross needed to show he was likely to win the lawsuit on the merits of the case. His lawyers said they had met that threshold by showing that the EDA, by statute, is an independent entity.
In any case, the true subjects of the task force’s investigation are the plaintiffs — not the EDA, Norcross’ attorneys say. They added that such an inquiry would be proper for the attorney general, not the task force.
“They’re saying, ‘All Norcross wants to do is stop an investigation.’ That’s absurd. That’s absurd,” Critchley told the judge. “What we’re saying is: What we don’t have a lack of in New Jersey are investigative agencies.”
Norcross also alleged that the task force has violated his constitutional rights to free speech and due process, because the task force didn’t give him a meaningful opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence.
Murphy’s lawyers countered that the law and state constitution give the governor broad authority over state agencies and officials.
In addition, the task force offered Norcross and the companies an opportunity to testify and file a statement of facts under oath, undercutting their due process arguments, Murphy’s lawyers said.