EDA task force names names and promises deeper investigation

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

You can call it the long game. Rebuffed on his big policy aims by the South Jersey axis powers, the governor has chosen to take on those power brokers and politicians — mainly South Jersey power broker George Norcross and Sen. Steve Sweeney — over their roles in the controversial Economic Development Authority, or EDA, incentive program, which the governor says has been rotten with lax oversight and maybe corruption. That would be one way of looking at Thursday’s proceedings.

Recent press reports confirm the long-held notion that Norcross and his friends in and around Camden city played a major role in rewriting the Economic Opportunity Act in 2013. The governor’s task force that’s looking into the program used the daylong hearing to peck away at the program’s credibility.

Chaired by Ron Chen, the task force heard from a number of witnesses who raised doubts about how the incentive program was administered. Frederick Cole, a senior vice president at the EDA, was asked about an unsuccessful whistleblower lawsuit filed against the EDA.

“I have to say personally, I was a little bit shocked that not only did the claimant allege that he was fired because of retaliatory measures because of the EEO claim, but also because there were new allegations that were brought up that, prior to that time, I have never seen or heard of,” said Cole.

Later, a payroll manager from an unidentified company testified that the company falsified records in order to qualify for the EDA Grow NJ Grant program.

“One particular case where an employee’s employment was terminated while the office was still in New York City. However, to meet the Grow NJ head count, that employee’s termination was subsequently pulled all the way across into 2016 and the severance pay was pulled all the way out until the end,” said Georgia Winston, an attorney at Walden, Macht and Haran.

David Lawyer, a managing director at the EDA was asked about whether the authority may have been misled by certain companies — including Conner, Strong and Buckelew, an insurance broker chaired by George Norcross and all represented by Kevin Sheehan — about whether they were really planning to leave the state if they didn’t get a tax break.

Sheehan’s name is important because he reportedly had a hand in rewriting the legislation that created the incentive programs, something most lobbyists do, except Sheehan never registered as a lobbyist. That may or may not be the criminal complaint the task force says it has forwarded to law enforcement.

Former EDA President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Lizura told the task force that the authority has always acted on the up and up.

“The EDA is a nonpartisan organization. Our work was not to benefit any one governor, any one individual or one entity,” he said.

A statement from several Camden officials emailed to us by George Norcross said, “It has occurred to us that the Governor maybe holding Camden and the business communities in general hostage to get his massive tax increases through the legislature … we think it is unfair and illogical to use the most significant contributors to our economy — our businesses — as pawns to get the massive taxes enacted.”

The task force counseled the audience and the press to not assume that any of the testimony Thursday was either true or accurate. They’ve still got some digging to do, they said. But, if the audience or the press should make some judgments about whether South Jersey power brokers had undo influence on, or may have lied to, an authority that committed over a billion to the benefit of those power brokers, well that would be up to us. The task force says it’s just getting started.