Power Broker Flexing Muscle, Caught on Tape

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APRIL 1, 2005

By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI

TRENTON, March 31 – In a series of secretly recorded conversations, the Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III made threats, discussed patronage jobs and offered vaguely worded inducements to persuade a small-town councilman to fire a defiant municipal employee. The conversations were on audio tapes released on Thursday by the New Jersey attorney general’s office.

The tapes, which were recorded in early 2001 by a Palmyra councilman, John Gural, offer a rare glimpse of the volatile but media-shy Mr. Norcross flexing his political muscle: bragging about his access to powerful elected officials like United States Senator Jon S. Corzine and flaunting his ability to shower his allies with coveted jobs and to destroy the careers of his adversaries. At one point in the conversations, Mr. Norcross says he wants to make an example of a Democrat who defied him, Ted Rosenberg, and urges Mr. Gural to fire Mr. Rosenberg as the Palmyra town solicitor.

In subsequent discussions, Mr. Norcross offers to help place Mr. Gural in a patronage job at the Board of Elections in exchange for firing Mr. Rosenberg. And on January 29, 2001, when Mr. Gural says his employers told him that Mr. Norcross had promised to steer extra municipal contracts to the firm as a reward for firing Mr. Rosenberg, Mr. Norcross replies, “We’d like to see you derive a little bit of that benefit.”

Release of the tapes came after a long court battle between the attorney general’s office, which had fought to keep them private, and Mr. Rosenberg, who argued that they held evidence of attempted extortion. Several news organizations, including The New York Times, also pressed for release of the tapes and, given the succession of corruption scandals in the state, they stoked furious speculation by reporters and political analysts.

But many of Mr. Norcross’s most provocative statements had already been leaked to the press, so the tapes released yesterday offered more insight into his particularly Hobbesian political style than into his efforts to topple Mr. Rosenberg.

Mr. Norcross’s lawyer, William Tambussi, had urged the attorney general to release the tapes, saying they would show that the allegations by Mr. Gural and Mr. Rosenberg were baseless. In a statement released last night, Mr. Tambussi said that the entire episode was a vendetta by Mr. Gural and Mr. Rosenberg because Mr. Norcross had not supported their candidacies for party and legislative offices.

“These two men are nothing more than malcontents and political shakedown artists, and the tapes prove it,” Mr. Tambussi said. Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Gural had said that Mr. Norcross would be heard making death threats, but no such remarks were found on the tapes. “The tapes show that Mr. Gural and Mr. Rosenberg invented, fabricated and lied in all their wild accusations,” Mr. Tambussi said.

The investigation ended with three officials of Mr. Gural’s company, JCA Associates, pleading guilty to tax fraud and campaign finance charges. Mr. Norcross was not charged with any wrongdoing.

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Mr. Gural and Mr. Rosenberg have strongly criticized Attorney General Peter Harvey for not pursuing Mr. Norcross more aggressively in the case, and at one point, a Superior Court judge also criticized the attorney general’s office for offering JCA officials a plea deal the judge found too lenient.

However they are interpreted legally, the tapes offer vibrant sound bites for government watchdog groups that complain about New Jersey’s political culture being marred by backroom deals intended to benefit insiders.

During his conversation with Mr. Gural on January 3, 2001, Mr. Norcross recounts the ways he helped JCA win government contracts, and unapologetically justifies the practice of steering government contracts to political allies.

“To be the most qualified, the best, the honest — you know, all that stuff — and not that you don’t do what’s right, but you consider politics,” Mr. Norcross said. “And there’s nothing wrong with considering if you can help a friend, as long as a friend’s doing a good job.”

Mr. Norcross also took credit for helping South Jersey residents get a larger share of tax dollars and political appointments by challenging the other Democratic leaders who backed Mr. Corzine’s candidacy for the United States Senate in 2000. Mr. Norcross’s decision to back Gov. James Florio for the Democratic nomination ignited a fierce battle within the party, and Mr. Norcross joked that it cost Mr. Corzine an $35 million by forcing him to run in a contested primary. But Mr. Norcross said the turmoil was worth it because that move had transformed his South Jersey organization into a major player in state politics and would prevent the region from being shortchanged in the future.

“Never again will that happen,” he said. “Because we put up the gun and we pulled the trigger and we blew their brains out. They know it. We’re just like Hudson County and Essex County now. That’s the way it works.”

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