In 2010, veteran New Jersey lobbyist Jeff Michaels made more money from old clients, picked up new ones, and earned more than $430,000. It was the kind of year a Trenton insider hopes for.
How did his lobbying earnings jump sevenfold in one year? By partnering with well-connected lawyer Philip Norcross, one of Senate President Stephen Sweeney's most trusted advisers and the brother of both a senator and one of the state's top Democratic power brokers.
Michaels and Norcross started a lobbying and strategic planning firm called Optimus Partners L.L.C. in late 2009 that represents casinos, hospitals, utilities, and others before state government.
"Having Phil and his experience and his judgment and his knowledge has absolutely been enormously helpful to me. . . . Getting him to be sitting at the table is a major improvement in services that I was able to offer clients," Michaels said.
The success of Optimus, one of the newer firms to lobby in Trenton, offers insight into relationships that seldom draw public attention and the demand for well-placed consultants to navigate state government.
Norcross built a reputation as a smart and business-savvy lawyer over several decades and is now managing partner at Parker McCay, one of the state's top law firms. The company received $9.2 million from public sector contracts in New Jersey last year - more than $513,000 from the Gloucester County government, where Sweeney until December was the longtime freeholder director.
Those familiar with Norcross, who lives in Mount Laurel, describe him as more private than George Norcross, the Democratic leader in Camden County, and their other brother, Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden). They say he prefers to stay under the radar and keep his name out of the newspapers.
Philip Norcross turned down repeated requests for an interview.
"Those who know me know that I enjoy new challenges and I believe the development of a new level of strategic and business consulting firm would present such an exciting challenge," he said in a statement. "Jeff shared that common vision and, as a result, we decided to organize the company."
Michaels, of Hillsborough, has been successful in his own right. He ran the New Jersey Senate Republican office and the state GOP in the 1990s and served as chief of staff to Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, then went on to do lobbying and consulting work. Trenton observers praise him as skilled at the inner workings of government. He was a campaign adviser to Gov. Christie in 2009 and last year donated $25,000 to Reform Jersey Now, a since-disbanded organization whose mission was to promote the governor's agenda.
Public strategy firms in Trenton typically have partners from both sides of the political aisle, and Michaels noted that Optimus is no different.
"Phil and I have successfully had independent businesses that transcend the personalities in office today, yesterday, and tomorrow," Michaels said.
At Optimus, lobbying is secondary to strategic consulting and a broader range of services offered to corporate and nonprofit clients, Michaels said.
"We kept the number of clients small and the level of services very high because we're getting into more long-range planning for clients," he said.
Optimus' most lucrative client last year was the Casino Association of New Jersey, which paid the company $121,000 to lobby on bills that created an Atlantic City tourism district and relaxed gaming regulations.
One of the company's high-profile clients is Comcast, for which Optimus lobbied in favor of a controversial cable deregulation bill. The legislation passed the Assembly in February and appeared to be on the fast track for Senate approval but was pulled following an outcry from senior-citizen and consumer advocates.
While nothing in New Jersey becomes law without Sweeney's approval, the senator said Norcross had never lobbied him.
"He's never come to me and said, 'Steve, can you do this for me, can you do that for me, I need this or I need that,' " Sweeney said.
The firm was incorporated early in September 2009, as Sweeney was rounding up the votes behind the scenes to oust Richard Codey as Senate president. He was voted into the position that November, the month that Christie was elected.
Sweeney said that while he has always known Michaels as a lobbyist, he doesn't view Norcross as such because he knew him long before Optimus. Sweeney grew up with the Norcross brothers and considers Philip one of his most trusted friends.
Norcross "tells me the truth," Sweeney said. He "is one of a handful of people that I will go talk to and say, 'I've got this going on, what do you think?' "
The Norcross-Michaels duo is far from the biggest or most prominent firm in Trenton; last year it ranked 26th in lobbying revenue. What is notable, though, is the dramatic increase in the principals' 2010 lobbying income.
Norcross had done minimal work for the lobbying arm of Parker McCay before starting Optimus. A review of state disclosure records shows that the highest annual earnings he received from lobbying in the four years before starting the company was $43,270.
Last year, he made $201,287 from lobbying at Optimus.
The highest amount Michaels reported receiving from lobbying in the four years before starting Optimus was $102,000, and it was just $60,000 in 2009. Michaels earned $294,813 from lobbying at Optimus.
The state requires the disclosure only of lobbying earnings. Strategic consulting or public relations, for example, would not have to be reported, so the figures listed don't reflect the full scope of their income.
Optimus doesn't discuss its clients, and many did not return messages.
Some of the new business came from clients affiliated with George Norcross. Optimus this year reported taking on as a client Conner, Strong & Buckelew, the insurance company of which he is chairman. CEO W. Michael Tiagwad said in a statement that Conner Strong engaged Optimus to monitor the New Jersey Register with respect to proposed regulations by the Department of Banking and Insurance and other matters.
Cooper University Hospital, where George Norcross is chairman, also entered into a two-year contract with Michaels in January 2010, paying him $137,000 through his other firm, Public Affairs Management. Cooper is that company's only client, and Michaels, the firm's only agent, lobbied for the hospital on state budget matters.
Other clients Optimus picked up include Senior Care Centers of America, Texas Eastern Transmissions, Xerox, and New Jersey American Water, for which the company advocates before state agencies. It also has lobbied before the Department of Environmental Protection for Sayreville Seaport Associates, which is undertaking a development project costing more than $100 million in Middlesex County.
Last month, Christie visited Trinitas Medical Center, which paid Optimus $65,000 in lobbying fees during 2010. At a news conference, Christie praised the Elizabeth hospital's service and said Trinitas had received the largest increase in state funding of any of its peers.
"Like most hospitals, Trinitas is represented in Trenton during the budget process in order to make sure its policy goals and positions are transmitted effectively to the Legislature as it considers the state budget," Trinitas spokesman Doug Harris said in an e-mail.
However, every hospital in the state is reimbursed for charity care and Medicaid according to a formula in the budget, noted Harris.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the trip to Trinitas happened to fit into the governor's schedule that day. He declined to comment on Optimus.
Optimus also reported lobbying on the budget for the Liberty Science Center, which received $12.4 million in the budget this year, compared with $7.2 million the year before. Other cultural institutions, including Battleship New Jersey, saw their funding cut.
Center spokeswoman Mary Meluso said the state had a long history of supporting the nonprofit. State funding for operations and education actually decreased when not accounting for debt service, according to Meluso.
"People who don't live in the world of Trenton or in the world of government, they say . . . 'I've got this problem with government, this thing I want to do that needs to navigate through the myriad layers of government that exist, who am I going to hire, who's the best guy?' " said one New Jersey Republican. "And when you've got people whose relationships exist at that level, that's certainly one way to evaluate the best guy."