By JOSH BENSON
Published: April 10, 2005
ON first impression, John Gural stocky and bespectacled — hardly strikes a visitor as a secret agent, partisan revolutionary or news-media star.Yet after wearing a hidden microphone for several months to capture the boasts and threats of one of the most powerful men in New Jersey, Mr. Gural — who today is part-time mayor of this blue-collar town of 7,100 in South Jersey — has become all of those things.
In retrospect, Mr. Gural says: ”This was like something out of a movie. I couldn’t believe it.”
So how did Mr. Gural (pronounced guh-RAL), a self-professed ”small-town guy” who lives with his wife and two children in the house where he grew up, find himself in the center of one of this year’s most dramatic stories?
The way Mr. Gural recalls it, the whole conflict was thrust upon him when his personal loyalties ran up against the murky nexus of business and politics in New Jersey, and the ramifications are certain to play out during the coming gubernatorial election and beyond. Already, Douglas Forrester, a leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, has put on radio spots featuring George E. Norcross III, the powerful but unelected Democratic boss from Camden County, bragging on tape about his access to Senator Jon S. Corzine, the presumptive Democratic candidate.
Sitting in his favorite corner seat in the dimly lighted Park Tavern in Palmyra one recent evening, the 45-year-old mayor hardly knew where to begin.
”It all started in February of ’99,” he said, prompting an indulgent smile from an eavesdropping bartender who had clearly heard it all before.
And so begins the tale of the tapes.
The highlight of the tape recordings — 330 hours worth that have collectively become known as ”the Palmyra tapes” — is probably the two hours or so of discussions between Mr. Gural and Mr. Norcross, who boasted of his influence with the state’s top office holders.
In his conversations with Mr. Gural, who at the time was a Palmyra councilman and project manager at an engineering firm, Mr. Norcross bragged about his access to powerful elected officials like Mr. Corzine and his ability to provide cushy jobs for allies and to wreck the livelihoods of adversaries.
But what would make Mr. Norcross flex his political muscles before the small-town city councilman?
To hear Mr. Gural tell it, the trouble started when he formed a friendship with Ted Rosenberg, Palmyra’s Democratic town solicitor.
When Mr. Gural agreed to publicly support Mr. Rosenberg for a local party chairmanship against the candidate backed by the Democratic county organization, he said he got an unexpected call at his workplace, an engineering company called JCA Associates that relied on municipal contracts for much of its business.
”My boss called me into his office, and he said, ‘Gural, it would be better for your future here if you didn’t go to that press conference,”’ Mr. Gural recalled between sips of black-and-tan. ”I loved working there. I didn’t know what to do. But I said, ‘You know what? I made a commitment to him and I’m not going anywhere.”’
Over the next few months, Mr. Rosenberg continued to butt heads with local party leaders, and Mr. Gural came under increasing pressure from within JCA to disavow his alliance with Mr. Rosenberg and, eventually, to use his position on the town council to oust him as town solicitor.
That, Mr. Gural said, is when he decided to take matters into his own hands, setting up a sort of amateur sting operation before a meeting with one of his bosses at JCA.
”I dusted off my Sony pocket recorder — the thing was like 11 years old, it was like a brick,” he said, making an unmistakable brick shape with his hands. ”I had a little bit of tape left.”
On that tape, Mr. Gural said, he recorded his boss telling him to fire Mr. Rosenberg because ”this is what George wants.”
Figuring he had captured a clear piece of evidence — of what, he was not sure — he called a friend who is a lawyer, and together they called State Attorney General David Samson’s office. Soon afterward, Mr. Gural said he was meeting with two state investigators in his lawyer’s office, where they listened to the recording he had made. The investigators’ reaction was swift.
”They say, ‘If you agree right now, you’re working as our agent,”’ said Mr. Gural.
From then on, Mr. Gural adopted a new routine: he would get wired up at home in the morning by agents from the attorney general’s office, go to work and then meet with the agents for an end-of-the-day debriefing.
”For my wife and kids, it just became part of the routine,” he said.
It was some routine for Mr. Gural, who grew up in Palmyra, the oldest of five children of a welder and a homemaker. Though he left Palmyra after high school to play soccer for the University of Delaware, he finished only one year of college before returning home. About a decade ago Mr. Gural decided to enter local politics, first getting elected to the town council, then mayor — a position that carries an annual salary of $2,100.
After capturing on tape what he described as an escalating series of threats to his job security if he did not fire Mr. Rosenberg — along with increasingly explicit acknowledgements that Mr. Norcross was putting pressure on company officials to get it done — the investigators decided that the best course of action would be for Mr. Gural to act as if he had finally caved in to the pressure.
”At that point, all they had were threats,” he said. The investigators were looking for a way to extend the investigation.
So Mr. Gural told his bosses at JCA — who did not know that he was taping his conversations with them or Mr. Norcross — that he would fire Mr. Rosenberg from his position as town solicitor.
It did not take long for his seeming favor to be returned.
”My boss came in and said, ‘Gural, think about what you want — you’ve been called up to the mountaintop.”’
The mountaintop, of course, was the meeting with Mr. Norcross — an executive at Commerce Bank and one of the most powerful men in New Jersey — during which Mr. Gural said he was offered help getting a lucrative job at the Burlington County Board of Elections.
Later that year, state investigators raided the offices of JCA Associates, seizing computers and documents. The entire yearlong investigation resulted in three officials from JCA pleading guilty to tax fraud and campaign-finance charges. Mr. Norcross was not charged with any wrongdoing.
For now, the fate of the bulk of the tapes remains unresolved. The state attorney general’s office released the two hours of conversations after Mr. Norcross — and acting Gov. Richard J. Codey — urged that they be released. But more than 300 hours of the tapes have not yet been made public pending a judge’s decision on a motion filed earlier this month to withhold them until they can be edited to protect details of wire-tapping techniques and innocent third parties.
After an uncomfortable few months in 2001 when Mr. Gural continued to go to work at JCA Associates, he left to take a job with a construction company in Vineland.
As for the people of Palmyra, he said that they were overwhelmingly supportive of what he had done, and in fact elected him mayor in 2003 and thanked him ”for standing up for them.”
Otherwise, Mr. Gural said, all the madness surrounding the tapes has not altered his life that much.
”I mean, I still bank at Commerce Bank,” he said. ”It’s convenient. What can I say?”
Photo: ”This was like something out of a movie,” said Mayor John Gural of Palmyra, a town of 7,100 in South Jersey. ”I couldn’t believe it.’