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Inside the ‘wild’ charges against Dem power broker George Norcross

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Inside the ‘wild’ charges against Dem power broker George Norcross

Jun 18, 2024 | 9:35 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Inside the ‘wild’ charges against Dem power broker George Norcross
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George Norcross III, right, and lawyer Michael Critchley speak to reporters in Trenton on June 17, 2024, after hearing Norcross has been indicted by the state Attorney General's Office. (Photo by Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The indictment unveiled Monday that accuses insurance executive and Democratic power broker George Norcross III of overseeing a criminal enterprise is replete with accusations of threats, intimidation, and political corruption that go on for 111 pages.

But at the heart of the charges filed by Attorney General Matt Platkin’s office are claims that Norcross — a Democratic kingmaker widely regarded as New Jersey’s most powerful unelected person — conspired with his allies to leverage their control of Camden County government officials to steer redevelopment work to their preferred investors and punish those who did not fall in line.

While some details of the saga have previously emerged in press reports or through a gubernatorial task force convened to probe abuses of the state’s tax incentives, the indictment against Norcross and five of his allies presents new details about how prosecutors claim they used their political power for personal gain.

It centers around voluminous New Jersey tax incentive programs meant to steer investment to the state’s financially struggling cities and accuses Norcross and others of enriching themselves with taxpayer dollars while lying to the government.

Norcross, a former Democratic national committeeman who faces 13 counts in the racketeering indictment, has denied any wrongdoing and alleges the prosecution is politically motivated.

“What’s being alleged here, it’s a wild story, a fanciful story woven together, a concocted criminal enterprise,” said Kevin Marino, an attorney for one of the defendants. “I don’t see a single allegation here that rises to the level of criminal activity.”

Inside the ‘wild’ charges against Dem power broker George Norcross
The Triad1828 Centre in Camden, one of the properties at the heart of the criminal charges facing George Norcross III. (Courtesy of the Attorney General’s Office)

Triad1828 & 11 Cooper

In 2013, Norcross and allies sought to build on plots near Camden’s waterfront as expanded tax incentives became available under a new law.

Parts of the law were written by Kevin Sheehan, an attorney at the Parker McCay firm — Norcross’s brother Philip, a co-defendant, is the CEO — who the indictment calls lawyer-1, and offered more generous awards with far fewer guardrails to projects in Camden than it called for elsewhere. But Norcross and his allies still ran into problems.

They did not own the land and lacked the rights to develop it, and Philadelphia-based developer Dranoff Properties had the right of first refusal for one lot and a view easement that would limit the height of construction in the other.

Norcross and allies sought an end to the easement so they could construct the Triad1828 Centre — the tallest building on Camden’s waterfront, which now hosts Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI, and the Michaels Organization — but met with resistance from Carl Dranoff, the developer whom the indictment refers to as developer-1.

Norcross is executive chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew. NFI CEO Sidney Brown and Michaels Organization CEO John O’Donnell have also been charged.

City officials, including then-Mayor Dana Redd — another co-defendant — then stopped returning the developer’s calls, and an offer followed, prosecutors claim. Dranoff Properties would receive $1.3 million in reimbursements and consulting fees plus $1 million to cede its development rights, its easement, and $18 million in state tax credits to Liberty Property Trust, the developer favored by Norcross, according to the indictment.

The offer included the promise of a push by Norcross allies to lobby the Camden Redevelopment Agency to issue permits that would lower the environmental remediation standards at a separate site the developer sought to redevelop, the indictment says. The firms played no legal role in that process.

The deal fell through the same day it was offered, and those in Norcross’s orbit turned to other methods, prosecutors claim.

“I think we just do it. F**k ‘em. F**k ‘em. Just do it,” Norcross said during a recorded conversation with his brother, according to the indictment.

The indictment alleges Norcross turned to two strategies: His team would have the Camden Redevelopment Agency challenge the easement in court, and they would challenge the developer’s character in public.

The court filing was an effort to get the easement thrown out under the New Jersey Eminent Domain Act, which allows governments to seize private property under certain circumstances that include just compensation for the property owner.

There is no evidence the redevelopment agency intended to follow the process set out by that law, which requires the condemning agency appraise the property to be seized and make a written offer that meets or exceeds its value before moving to condemn the building, prosecutors said.

The indictment says the developer feared the financial harms borne of Norcross’s control of Camden government and his ability to do businesses elsewhere in the future. He ceded his easement and sold his $18 million in tax credits and his development rights for $1.95 million in October 2016.

Prosecutors allege Norcross and his allies resorted to coercive tactics over a separate site some 16 months later, when they charged Dranoff was responsible for stalled redevelopment at Radio Lofts, a former Radio Corporation of America building that could not be redeveloped because the Camden Redevelopment Agency could not secure sufficient financing for environmental remediation.

“He’s gonna come under some serious accusations from the City of Camden, which are gonna basically suggest that he’s not a reputable person and he’s done nothing but try to impede the progress of the city,” Norcross said on a recorded conference call, according to the indictment. “You can never trust him until you got a bat over his head.”

Officials began deriding the developer after he sued the city, the redevelopment agency, and others in 2018 after Camden moved to end his development rights on the Radio Lofts site.

“The city of Camden is taking action against those who have taken advantage of the city when it was down,” then-Camden Mayor Frank Moran said when the city countersued Dranoff in 2018.

The developer settled that suit in 2023, agreeing to pay the city $3.3 million and cede redevelopment rights to the Radio Lofts site. He believed he was in the right, the indictment says, but “had concerns over corruption in Camden which made him believe that he would not be treated fairly by the court system.”

That accusation raised the hackles of Norcross attorney Michael Critchley, who likened them to Donald Trump’s claims that his New York hush money conviction is the result of a corrupt judicial system.

“Why would an officer of the court, meaning Platkin, the attorney general, put shame unnecessarily, unjustly, and salaciously, on the entire court system of Camden, and in particular the judge,” Critchley told the New Jersey Monitor. “This is just out of Trump’s playbook.”

Conner Strong & Buckelew, NFI, and the Michaels Organization won more than $240 million in tax credits for the Triad1828 Centre through the now-defunct GROW NJ tax credit program. The three firms have received at least $29 million of those tax credits, prosecutors said, much of which they sold.

The Michaels Organization has received roughly $3.5 million in tax credits for 11 Cooper, a residential project on the site to which the developer had the right of first refusal. Michaels sold those tax credits for roughly $4.3 million.

A Dranoff spokeswoman declined to comment.

Inside the ‘wild’ charges against Dem power broker George Norcross
Attorney General Matt Platkin leaving a conference room on June 17, 2024, after announcing criminal charges against George Norcross III. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

L3 complex

The indictment alleges similar misconduct over the nonprofit Coopers Ferry’s redevelopment of an office building Cooper University Health Care wanted for its own offices. Norcross is chairman of the Cooper health system’s board.

Philip Norcross railed at top officials at Cooper’s Ferry over the project, saying it should be handed over to a private developer, the indictment claims. Prosecutors allege that within a day, he urged the nonprofit to partner with Ira Lubert, a Pennsylvania real estate mogul with financial ties to George Norcross whom the indictment calls Investor-1.

Cooper’s Ferry entered a non-disclosure agreement with Lubert but chose another developer, a decision that immediately drew Norcross’s ire, prosecutors say.

Two days later, on April 25, 2014, Philip Norcross, who held no formal role with the city or Cooper’s Ferry, told the nonprofit it was not allowed to use its chosen developers, a statement then-Cooper’s Ferry CEO Anthony Perno took as a threat, prosecutors allege.

In an email cited by the indictment, Perno called the two bids a “false choice,” saying Cooper’s Ferry would likely not be able to close a deal with its chosen developers “given the opposition.”

In the end, Cooper’s Ferry partnered with Norcross’ chosen developer, netted just $125,000 for its work on the project, and never received shares of future profits promised to it during negotiations, the indictment alleges.

The nonprofit’s agreement with its preferred developer would have seen it win 25% of future profits from the site. At the time of closing, the L3 site was appraised at roughly $54 million, tens of millions more than the $32.7 million Lubert’s partnership paid for it.

Cooper Health had applied for tax incentives to cover the costs of rent at the site a month earlier, though in its applications to the state Economic Development Authority, it left out that it planned to purchase an interest in L3, prosecutors say.

Cooper Health received an award of nearly $40 million just 28 days after filing its application and, four months thereafter, purchased a 49% stake in the site for about $2.5 million. Between 2015 and 2020, Cooper Health received more than $27.1 million in tax incentives, which it sold for about $25.1 million.

F**k ‘em. F**k ‘em. Just do it.

– George Norcross III, prosecutors allege

Prosecutors allege Norcross and others then sought to shield their role in the saga. Norcross, during a 2016 FBI interview, claimed he did not know anyone at Cooper’s Ferry, according to the indictment.

But Susan Bass Levin, who the indictment calls CC-1, joined the Cooper Ferry’s board two years earlier. Bass Levin is CEO of the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper University Health Care.

In 2017, Norcross moved to oust Perno as he shifted officials through positions within his influence, prosecutors allege. Perno resigned at the urging of Bass Levin — losing a full year in severance — though his departure had less to do with his job performance than Norcross’s view of his performance, prosecutors claimed.

If he refused to quit, officials would just invent a reason to remove him for cause and thereby deny him severance, Bass Levin said, according to the indictment.

The indictment recounts a conversation about Norcross that prosecutors claim Bass Levin had with Perno.

“You don’t want that fight. Believe me when I tell you. If you don’t think that he can’t get to anybody he wants to, you’re kidding yourself,” Bass Levin said.

Marino, the attorney representing Philip Norcross, said that exchange is an example of many in the indictment that prove no criminal activity and were included to create the appearance that George Norcross and his allies acted improperly.

“One party’s telling another party that George Norcross can get anywhere and do anything. What is that doing in an indictment?” Marino said. “The reason this indictment runs to 111 pages is it takes a lot of work to construct what actually happened in such a way as to make it look like it violates the law. It doesn’t.”