A lawsuit and exhibits attached filed by George Norcross’ lawyers and lawyers representing his business interests and those of his brother has escalated an unprecedented intraparty battle between the Norcrosses and Gov. Phil Murphy.
The battle began with a fact-finding mission about tax incentives administered by the Economic Development Authority since 2013, and escalated when the focus turned on Camden-based companies with ties to George Norcross.
The task force pursuing the information, established earlier this year by an executive order, highlighted news reports that revealed that an attorney at the law firm led by Philip Norcross, George Norcross’ brother, was a key contributor to crafting the programs, which eventually benefited the Camden companies.
Since that hearing earlier this month, a political battle has been brewing, with questions being raised about the authority of the task force and the legality of its special counsel, a New York-based lawyer, practicing in New Jersey.
That issue has already been addressed in a May 15 letter from Carol Johnston, secretary of the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law — a committee appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
In that letter, Johnston said, “Please note that your registration as a multijurisdictional practitioner permits you to practice in New Jersey; other lawyers in your firm who provide legal services in this matter but are not licensed to practice law in New Jersey will similarly need to register as multijurisdictional practitioners.”
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Mercer County Superior Court, was released the same day that a new bombshell report from ProPublica and WNYC revealed emails that proved Kevin Sheehan, an attorney at Philip Norcross’ firm, was in constant contact with Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to help craft the legislation, and then would regularly be in touch with the EDA to help push through certain projects.
In exhibits attached to the lawsuit, the team of attorneys representing George Norcross’ interests claim that Murphy’s intentions to single out the Camden projects, which represent a fraction of the $11 billion in approved tax incentives in the state, occurred just over a month before the hearing.
“Frustrated with its ineffectiveness, the task force apparently coordinated with Gov. Murphy to alter its status to that of a state agency formed … with the purported power to issue subpoenas, hold hearings, compel the attendance of witnesses and examine witnesses under oath,” the lawsuit said.
“Rather than publicly issue a new Executive Order, Gov. Murphy purported to alter the task force’s status and powers by letter to Professor (Ronald) Chen dated March 22, 2019.”
The letter was sent nearly two months after the task force first sent a notice to Cooper University Health Care, where George Norcross is chairman, to preserve documents related to the inquiry.
But, the power authorized in that letter could be invalid, according to the lawsuit.
The EDA is affiliated with, but not part of, the state Department of Treasury, which makes it a separate entity from the Executive Branch, the lawsuit said.
“The statute only authorizes gubernatorial investigations of entities that are subject to Executive control, and the EDA is not such an entity,” according to the lawsuit.
But many of the exhibits attached to the lawsuit reveal greater frustrations on both sides. While the task force pushed for documents to be made available, Norcross’ lawyers pushed back, stating that the task force didn’t have the authority to ask for what it was asking.
That lead to the brewing battle.
When the task force did not receive the responses to requests it was looking for, James Walden, a task force special counsel, served Cooper a subpoena.
The attorneys representing Norcross include William Tambussi, Michael Critchley, Michael Chertoff, Herbert Stern and Kevin Marino.
The lawsuit doesn’t include former state Attorney General Christopher Porrino, who had signed a letter from the team previously threatening a lawsuit.
In response to the subpoena, Porrino sent a letter to Walden asking for an explanation of the subpoena.
“We are hoping that you might explain the legal basis for the requests in the subpoena that go far beyond the management and affairs of the NJEDA,” Porrino said.
“The subpoena seeks some information that was not (and should not have been) in the files of the NJEDA, and it seeks that information from a private, non-governmental party. … It is difficult for us to discern how information and documents that NJEDA never possessed or requested would inform an investigation into ‘the management and affairs of the (NJEDA).’ ”
Further communication between both sides escalated the matter further, with the Norcross side claiming the task force did not have any authority.
Then, following a letter threatening a lawsuit against the task force by the Norcross lawyers, Walden replied on behalf of the task force.
“If you wish to have a dialogue with us, have a dialogue,” Walden said.
“Please do not write a letter and then immediately leak it to the press. I am surprised that such an august group would rely on this kind of stunt. It is beneath you.”
In addition, Walden said, the lawyers insist the companies weren’t given enough time to respond to requests to appear before the task force.
“Your letter of May 6th is hardly cooperation and, at bottom, you have produced not a single document — before or after the hearing — supporting any conclusions or assertions that your clients’ out-of-state locations were bona fide, suitable and available,” he said.
In the exhibits, the Norcross team also attach the declaration of an independent task force by legislators — namely, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), a Norcross ally.
Sweeney said he would launch his own task force to look into the EDA.
The team of lawyers highlights that they would insist on and welcome an unbiased fact-finding body looking into the EDA practices.