John Gural says the Democratic leader bragged about his influence in a secretly recorded chat
At a critical juncture in a political-corruption probe four years ago, the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice made a decision: Put a body wire on then-Palmyra Councilman John Gural and send him into the Commerce Bank office of Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III.
Investigators already had taped a Norcross telephone call. Now they wanted Gural to meet him. For about 90 minutes as the hidden tape recorder rolled, Gural joined Norcross and Mark Neisser, president of the politically connected engineering firm that was the subject of the same probe.
What was said that day in January 2001 has remained locked up in an evidence vault in the Division of Criminal Justice’s office in Cherry Hill. But with the investigation now over, a state Superior Court judge has ordered that tape and dozens of others released – barring an expected appeal by the state attorney general.
“Norcross talked for almost an hour and half,” Gural said in a recent interview. “He talks about how he could influence judicial appointments in New Jersey. He talks about how he wanted to deal with some of his political opponents. And he talked about how he wanted to eliminate the ‘fringe elements’ in Burlington County Democratic politics.
“But most of all, he talked about how powerful he was and how much influence he had” with Jim McGreevey, the soon-to-be governor, Gural said.
A state bid to keep the tapes secret was rejected last week by Judge John A. Sweeney. He ordered them released to Ted Rosenberg, a whistle-blower who sued for their release.
The state promptly filed a motion to bar the release before a March 21 deadline but withdrew it late yesterday. Officials at the Attorney General’s Office said yesterday that they had the right to renew the motion but declined to discuss what legal action was planned.
In all, 330 hours of conversations are at issue. Some were in the offices of JCA Associates Inc., the Moorestown engineering company where Gural worked as a project manager. Others were with now-Superior Court Judge John Harrington; there are three tapes with Lou Gallagher Jr., then chairman of the Burlington County Democratic Party, and one with Alice Furia, the party’s vice chair.
Rosenberg and Gural have said the tapes – especially the one with Norcross – offer a rare inside look at power politics and could embarrass some political figures.
William Tambussi, attorney for Norcross, said that the tapes showed “absolutely no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing against anyone,” and that Gural and Rosenberg had political motives in pushing for their release.
“Rosenberg and Gural live in a fantasy world. This is all about politics and their political failures,” he said.
The meeting with Norcross was arranged through Neisser, then president of JCA. The company has since been absorbed by another engineering firm. Last year, Neisser pleaded guilty to minor tax charges in a deal related to the case.
At the time of the recordings, a political battle was being waged in Burlington County, and Rosenberg, the solicitor in Palmyra, was opposing Norcross.
According to Gural, Neisser told him that Norcross wanted Rosenberg ousted as the town’s attorney. If Gural agreed to that, the Democrats would reward him, he was told. If not, he would lose his job at JCA.
Incensed at what he perceived as a threat, Gural approached the state, which agreed to begin an investigation.
In early January, investigators equipped Gural with an F-BIRD (FBI Research and Development), a high-tech electronic listening device the size of a business card. Gural slipped the device in his shirt pocket and headed to Norcross’ office.
The meeting, Gural said, was held in a posh conference room at Commerce Bank’s corporate offices in Cherry Hill, overlooking a busy stretch of Route 70.
Norcross, dressed impeccably in a dark suit and white shirt, welcomed him and Neisser and immediately launched into a monologue, Gural said.
“He began talking to Neisser about the influence he was amassing with McGreevey and how he had been named the co-finance chairman for the gubernatorial campaign,” Gural said.
The conversation quickly turned to Rosenberg, who had sought the chairmanship of the Burlington County Democratic Party without Norcross’ blessing.
“He said he wanted to punish Rosenberg for his actions in defying him,” Gural said.
“He was trying to be as forceful as he could in getting me to toe the line. He wanted me, very clearly, to fire Rosenberg as the solicitor.”
The men disagreed about Harrington’s role in Burlington County politics.
Norcross supported him; Gural did not.
“Norcross said he understood that Harrington wasn’t the most popular person and that Harrington’s involvement in the county party was causing friction,” Gural said.
“Norcross said he was going to resolve that by working to make Harrington a judge.”
Gural said the conversation shifted to professional contracts.
“He asked me who the engineers were in Palmyra, and I told him Dick Alaimo. He snapped at Neisser, asking him, ‘How did that happen?’ ” Gural said. “To tell you the truth, he startled me.
“He discussed Commerce Insurance’s appointment in Palmyra as well, asking me if I was going to reappoint Commerce as the township’s insurance broker.
“I assured him we would,” Gural said. (The next year, Commerce lost the contract).
Gural, at the direction of the Division of Criminal Justice, then asked Norcross whether he could arrange to have him appointed to a post at the county Board of Elections, a part-time paid position.
“Norcross took out a piece of paper and wrote it down,” Gural said. “Then he put the paper in his pocket and nodded, leading me to believe he was going to look into it.
“The meeting itself went fairly well,” Gural said. “At the end, Norcross told Neisser to invite me to the next fund-raiser at the Tavistock County Club. Two days later, I went. I knew the tickets were pretty expensive.
“But they comped me.”
Contact staff writer Maureen Graham at 856-779-3802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.