EDA Task Force counsel draws intricate ties between Norcross family, Camden-centered incentives

The second EDA Task Force hearing Thursday in Newark took on a trial-like atmosphere in a mock courtroom at Rutgers University’s campus in Newark.

And the city of Camden, Cooper University Health Care, insurance and benefits brokerage Conner Strong & Buckelew and the law firm Parker McCay — all entities with ties to the Norcross family in South Jersey — took center stage.

A task force special counsel, James Walden, focused on connections between the Economic Development Authority and South Jersey power broker George Norcross III, who is board chair of Cooper and executive chairman of Conner, and his brother, Philip Norcross — alleging a lawyer at Philip Norcross’s firm, Parker, engaged in unregistered lobbying.

The ties Walden described, some of which were reported in a New York Times article Wednesday, include:

  • Parker McCay attorney Kevin Sheehan helped craft the 2013 Economic Opportunity Act, adding in lines that could, allegedly, favor certain companies or developers;
  • Cooper may have been wrongly approved for tax incentives for keeping jobs in Camden, rather than moving to Philadelphia;
  • Conner may also have been wrongly approved for incentives in its move to Camden;
  • Language in the economic legislation appears to favor a specific supermarket project, as well as keeping the headquarters of Subaru and others in the city.

The witnesses who testified Thursday and helped Walden establish the ties or help question the validity of some award incentive applications include former EDA President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Lizura, who left the agency in July 2018; David Lawyer, a former underwriter at the EDA; and Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective.

In his opening comments, Lizura defended the EDA’s actions in Camden and said the city’s turnaround story is a direct result of tax credits.

“We ran the EDA in a responsible and professional manner,” Lizura said.

Lawyer reviewed the application submitted by George Norcross’ insurance firm, which showed that jobs were not at risk for leaving the state and that a supposed competitor site in Philadelphia had not been selected yet.

In addition to Conner, the Archer law firm, a supply chain company and a housing company also submitted applications threatening to leave New Jersey for Philadelphia.

Lizura explained that tax incentives are a tool that municipalities and others use in order to try to influence the behavior of corporations.

Walden appeared to suggest it was the other way around, with companies taking advantage of lack of oversight or EDA officials ignoring requirements not being met that were flagged by employees — and some of the employees ended up being whistleblowers.

Some examples include:

  • Companies choosing an alternate site after applying for the incentives;
  • Companies explicitly saying there are no jobs at risk of leaving the state, but receiving the incentives;
  • Fake addresses or nonexistent sites being used as the “alternate” site selected outside the state.

Walden asked Lawyer about protocols at the EDA and whether or not training programs existed.

Lawyer said they did not, and that ongoing or annual training would be a beneficial change the task force could pursue.

The revelations from whistleblowers and officials Thursday have thrown the current incentive programs under even harsher scrutiny — and could give Gov. Phil Murphy a boost to push for new incentives to be implemented in the two months remaining until the current programs expire.

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