An alliance with a powerful person is never safe. – Phaedrus
Long time readers of the Courier-Post were surely surprised to read the Feburary 11th printing of the paper. On the front page was an amazing sight, a flattering portrait and headline of a man the paper had railed against and investigated for the past 20 years – exposing his corruption and decrying him as a “machine boss.” The portrait, headline, and subsequent story of February 11 bore no resemblance to the man previously reported on. He was no corrupt machine boss, but a civic minded benefactor, nay a visionary. The piece was titled “George’s Grand Vision: Norcross Sees Camden Rising”
Within the article are a series of statements that are directly contradicted by established facts, many of which were reported by the Courier itself and other Gannett publications.
The story was written by Jason Method whose byline lists New Jersey Press Media not the Courier, the story also ran in other Gannett publications like the Asbury Park Press. It is not surprising that a Courier reporter was not the author of this story given the reporter the Courier had previously assigned to cover the machine, Jane Roh, had been fired from the paper principally for conflicts created by the Norcross Machine who demanded her firing on a continual basis – at one point with the threat of legal action.
This is actually not a new tactic by the Norcross Machine regarding reporters whose coverage it disliked, as recounted by Philadelphia Magazine:
Other journalists have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Norcross behind the scenes — he shovels them dirt on his opponents, they get a few days of copy. Reporters who are perceived to betray Norcross are dealt with in kind. His cordial relationship with the Courier ‘s Alan Guenther ended when Guenther wrote a revealing three-part series calling him “Boss Norcross.” This was followed by a smear campaign aimed at Guenther and his father, a local architect whose firm donated more than $11,000 to the Camden County Democrats. Always standing in the background, Norcross let his lawyer do the dirty work, sending the newspaper a seven-page letter that attacked Guenther’s father for “solicitation of no-bid contracts” and other offenses, while outlining the reporter’s “conflicts of interest” and “vigilante tactics.” Guenther declined to comment on the matter, and despite Norcross’s efforts, he remains at the Courier .
Guenther is no longer at the Courier. Though the story itself received a Public Service Award from the Philadelphia Press Association.
Let us review Guenther’s award winning journalism from his series “Boss Norcross”, Courier-Post, Feb. 16, 2003:
He can make or break careers with a single phone call. He’s so powerful that mayors, governors, senators – even state investigators – all want to hear what George E. Norcross III has to say.
Because more than 50 elected and appointed officials in South Jersey owe their careers to him, he can pull strings to influence who gets hired, who gets contracts and whose legislation sees the light of day.
Through a network of of Democratic Party and labor union loyalists, he works behind the scenes. Even though he holds no position in government, he is able to exert more influence over public spending in South Jersey than any any politician. Parks, bridges, roads, hospitals – practically nothing gets built without his input.
That does sound like a machine boss.
As the unquestioned leader of a Democratic political machine that has annihilated opposition in Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties, Norcross has also managed to win scores of local government insurance contracts. Under one of his biggest contracts, his company provides training to help workers avoid injury in 305 New Jersey communities…
When Norcross won control of the Camden County Democratic Party in 1989, he accepted no county insurance contracts. He said he wanted to avoid any conflict of interest.
But since resigning as county chairman in 1995, he’s gone after county and local government contracts with a passion. In his home base of Camden County, 31 of the 37 municipalities use Norcross’ risk management services, the Courier-Post found…
Of the 312 municipalities that share insurance costs, no fewer than 305 use Norcross’ company to train workers to avoid injury, according to David Grubb, executive director for the Municipal Excess Liability joint insurance fund.
For those wondering whether Norcross has ever profited off of his “grand visions” for New Jersey you may have your answer.
Norcross is so welcome at the State House in Trenton that he uses a private entrance to gain access to McGreevey’s offices.
His alliances are well known, though he said he strictly adheres to New Jersey’s notoriously weak campaign finance laws.
Contractors who make campaign donations to the Camden County Democrats often get professional contracts where competitive bidding is not required by law. Union workers loyal to him get jobs…
Norcross tried to get the Legislature to consider building an arena in Newark, even getting into a shouting match in the private office of Republican Senate President John O. Bennett.
Published reports called it a shoving match. Bennett declined comment except to say, “It got ugly.” Norcross wouldn’t talk about it.
Pay to play, intimidation tactics and this is before the infamous “Tapes.”
Now let us compare Guenther’s award winning account with Mr. Methods puff piece. “George’s grand vision: Norcross sees Camden rising” Courier-Post, Feb. 11, 2012:
Vilified as an iron-fisted political boss and master of pay-to-play politics for more than two decades, Norcross has focused his efforts in recent years on improving Camden.
“Vilified”… Really? It would seem the definitive story from Mr. Guenther and other stories featured by reporters did their homework and tried to report fairly not slander and/or abuse anyone.
Ironically, in Method’s own story one can see evidence of the “vilifying” narrative.
Norcross is not paid as chairman of Cooper, according to the nonprofit’s 2008-2010 tax returns, the latest publicly available. But those returns also showed that the hospital did nearly $1.6 million worth of business with Norcross’ insurance firm over those three years.
Or what of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), noted in Guenther and other’s stories as a Norcross Machine patronage den, from Method’s piece:
Cooper also has received substantial government help, including $6 million that the Delaware River Port Authority provided in December to help fund the planned cancer center.
Cooper, like other hospitals, borrows money through taxpayer-backed bonds. Such bonds have financed Cooper projects worth $266 million since 2004, according to its tax returns.
Who gets fees from financing those bonds and other bonds in Camden County?
Never mind, back to the “vision.”
Norcross also speaks passionately about the need to find some way to help parents who struggle with low-income jobs and who were not well educated themselves…
Norcross has advocated for the emergence of a South Jersey university — separate from Rutgers — because he believes the state has neglected higher education needs in the region. If the plan comes to fruition, Rowan University will become exactly that. Rowan will have two major campuses, in Glassboro and Camden, that will include a medical, law and business schools.
Sweeney, the state Senate president, announced last month that he intends to push for a higher education bond issue that will pay for capital projects.
Norcross says he looks forward to seeing South Jersey get its share of that money.
Is “South Jersey” a euphemism for the machine? Don’t think about it, this is about the children always the children.
Norcross has long been portrayed as the dark master of New Jersey politics…
Norcross became Camden County Democratic chairman in 1989, and quickly built a campaign fund-raising machine that critics alleged was fueled by pay-to-play contributions from government contractors.
Welcome to Oz. Guenther’s story was not true it was a portrayal and pay to play donations – which are documented by law – are only alleged to have happened. No Mr. Method those donations are a matter of public record not an allegation.
In rare instances when Norcross spoke to the press, it was on an off-the-record basis. Stories written about him painted him as the sharp-tongued and powerful political boss in the image of former Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, who helped elect Franklin Roosevelt as president.
Why is notoriously corrupt Frank Hague’s assisting a member of his party to become President relevant? Is that some sort of excuse? Talk about spin.
But then Method’s odd portrayal moves from the theater of the absurd to downright misleading.
”Far from slam-dunk proof of criminal conduct.”
It is truly surprising the Courier agreed to run Method’s story or at least this part of it.
Norcross was under investigation by the state Attorney General’s office from 2000 to 2001, when John Gural, who was then Palmyra’s mayor, secretly recorded Norcross and others. Gural alleged Norcross first threatened, then bribed him to fire a municipal solicitor who had angered Norcross.
But no charges came of it, and a federal judge threw out a lawsuit by the solicitor, Ted Rosenberg, against Norcross.
Some tapes were released in 2005. They displayed Norcross as a bare-knuckled and foul-mouthed political boss capable of intense anger, but they were also far from slam-dunk proof of criminal conduct.
There is a lot of things wrong with those statements. Some are omissions like those tapes were only released after the Courier and other newspapers sued to get them. A key point. Another problem is the implication that because the lawsuit by one of the people mentioned on the tapes was thrown out this is some sort of validation. But the clearest most obvious problem is that the tapes were “far from slam-dunk proof of criminal conduct.”
On this point Mr. Method is simply incorrect.
While it is true that the majority of the tapes mostly surround back room politics – appointing judges, destroying enemies, warning allies, the pratfalls of Burlington County Democrats – a good deal of the tapes also involve influence peddling and quid pro quo business dealings.
Norcross is not a registered lobbyist and so does not have to conform to those regulations. That being said much of his conversation on the tapes could be said to fall under lobbying (not a crime) such as asking Remington and Vernick to give Assemblyman Louis Greenwald a job to build “good will” or invoking Senator/Gloucester County Freeholder Steve Sweeney regarding a loss of insurance business. But then Norcross starts toeing the line.
In the Tom Foy discussion Norcross says he essentially told Foy he would not “do anything” unless Foy comes to a Camden County Democratic Committee fundraiser – which would likely require a donation. After having relayed this information Norcross then says to Gural that helping Mr. Foy would be “good for your business.” Once again, Norcross is not a public official, not even technically a party official at this point, so it is not so clear if this a violation of the law or Honest Services Fraud which was the law at the time of the conversation.
But, contrary to Mr. Method’s claim, there was another instance on the tapes that was in fact quite close to a ‘slam dunk’ regarding an Honest Services violation.
What is interesting is that Norcross, through his attorney, did not dispute that what was said on the tape would have been a crime – instead, Norcross’ attorney said that Norcross was not being truthful on the tapes.
From Richard Pearsall “Norcross again denies alleged contract-rigging”, Courier-Post, Apr. 7, 2005:
Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, speaking through his attorney, continues to deny he ever met with a Voorhees committeeman and told him to hire a Moorestown company as the township engineer, something the Democrat boasts of having done in the recently released “Palmyra tapes.’
“He misspoke,’ said Norcross’ attorney William Tambussi. “There was no meeting.”
To be clear, that is not denying what was said on the tapes was criminal conduct that is saying what was said on the tapes is not true.
On Jan. 3, 2001, Norcross is heard on a secretly recorded tape describing a meeting at which he told Voorhees Committeeman Harry Platt to hire JCA as the township engineer. This despite an interview process that had the township committee leaning toward another firm, Norcross said on the tape.
“. . . we said to Harry, wait a second, JCA was going to be the engineer of record. I don’t care about your f—— review process,’ Norcross said.
Also present at the meeting with Platt, according to Norcross, were Camden County Clerk Jim Beach and Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, D-Voorhees…
Voorhees Township Committee appointed JCA as its engineer on the evening of Jan. 3, 2001…
The contract was originally going to go to another firm, Norcross said, because three “do-gooder’ committeemen wanted to name another firm “based on the interviews.’
But at the meeting attended by Platt and the others, Norcross said, he set Platt straight that, regardless, “JCA was going to be the engineer of record.’
That is not “far from slam dunk proof of criminal conduct” regarding Honest Services fraud. Interference with a bidding process to give favor to political allies is denying residents Honest Services. Which may be why Norcross did not fight the accusation on those grounds rather he claimed he “misspoke” because if he did not “misspeak” and was relaying an accurate portrayal of events he would have broken the law.
For Mr. Method to now write revisionist history is either very dishonest or very sloppy, or perhaps both. In either case the readers of the Courier were not well served and if they were long time readers were probably also confused.
It Takes A Village
There is a long standing notion that for corruption to triumph good people have to do nothing – what if they just refuse to remember?
Courier-Post readers would probably find a lot of interesting reversals or political amnesia in Method’s cover story. Perhaps the most obvious and cynical would be Governor Chris Christie:
“You know, I think there has been a lot of mythology built up around George Norcross,” Christie says through a spokesman. “I think the reality is he is someone with passion about things that are important to New Jersey
… And before, from the New York Times:
In a scathing letter dated Tuesday, Christopher J. Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, wrote that his office would be unable to bring charges against Mr. Norcross because lawyers for the state attorney general had mishandled their investigation under two administrations before turning it over to his office in 2004…
His letter also harshly criticized state prosecutors for deciding not to secretly tape conversations at a Camden County Democratic fund-raiser in 2001, where Mr. Norcross and his associates were expected to discuss a wide variety of political deals. Mr. Christie said that that decision was so inexplicable that it raised the possibility that state investigators were trying to shield political figures.
So is Christie upset about building this “mythology” up? What vilification! Seems like the Courier is not the only one changing their story.
How can a figure so thoroughly and continuously articulated by the Courier in award winning journalism be so comprehensively redefined? There is no evidence that Mr. Norcross has metamorphosed so completely whether it be inserting benefits into legislation or having his machine pals helping spread the wealth around which goes up to and includes Norcross family members.
So if George Norcross has not changed what has?
This is a difficult time for the newspaper industry, actually it is a difficult time for many industries as disruptive technologies sow volatility into established orders. The dynamism of innovation, while profound to consider and often exhilarating to observe, carries within it dangers and pitfalls none of which are more perilous than the destruction of common understandings and trusted sources of information. The writers and publisher of the Courier-Post know this all too well.
But in the struggle to survive, to find their footing on ground that is shifting beneath their feet, has the Courier sacrificed some integrity? There is a tradition in Western culture, even predating the newspaper industry, of inquiry and skepticism regarding the claims of political elites when pursuing public power and influence. Whether it be in the time of antiquity or in the information age. Whether it be for the glory of Rome or the glory of “South Jersey.”
The question guardians of the public interest must ask when a would be king struts into the commons – claiming the mantle of legitimacy and a deep passion for the common good if only he be allowed to operate unchallenged – is …