Category Archives: 2005

U.S. to probe missing Norcross video

The state said it did not know the fate of the secret recording. Gubernatorial candidates urged an investigation

POSTED: July 07, 2005

 

New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor took the unusual step yesterday of announcing that his office is investigating the disappearance of a secretly recorded videotape of George E. Norcross III, one of the state’s most powerful political figures.

The announcement was made after the state’s principal gubernatorial candidates, Republican Douglas Forrester and Democratic Sen. Jon S. Corzine, called on U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie to determine how the tape disappeared and who in the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office was responsible.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is fully investigating this matter,” Christie said in a statement late yesterday afternoon. “Therefore, we have no further comment.”

The videotape of Norcross and his attorney meeting with a top state prosecutor was made in July 2001 while the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice was involved in a political corruption investigation of JCA Associates Inc., a Moorestown engineering firm.

The way the Attorney General’s Office handled the JCA probe is emerging as a key issue in the gubernatorial race. Both candidates have spoken out on it.

Yesterday was the first time Christie commented publicly. His office, however, has been gathering information for months.

It recently obtained a court “share order” that allowed state authorities to turn over all material gathered in the two-year probe, including transcripts of grand-jury testimony, according to individuals familiar with the investigation.

The FBI also has begun interviewing individuals and has been reviewing hundreds of hours of conversations secretly taped by state investigators.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said yesterday that the state welcomed federal involvement. John R. Hagerty also said his office would ask the state’s new Office of Government Integrity to conduct an independent examination.

“We welcome any outside review,” Hagerty said.

Yesterday’s political outcry came after state authorities admitted in court papers filed Friday that the hourlong video of Norcross, his lawyer Michael Critchley, and Prosecutor Anthony J. Zarrillo Jr. had disappeared or been destroyed.

At a court hearing a month ago, state authorities insisted that the meeting had not been videotaped and that media reports of the existence of a tape were in error.

“This reeks of Watergate-like corruption,” Forrester said in a letter to Christie. “We need an independent investigation to get the truth before more tapes are lost or altered.”

Forrester called on Corzine to “demonstrate his independence from George Norcross” by joining in asking for a federal probe.

Within hours, Corzine did just that, releasing a letter he sent to Christie asking for “a full and thorough investigation to determine whether any laws were violated and to ascertain why the correct information was not initially provided with regard to the existence of the videotape.”

As a result of civil litigation, the Attorney General’s Office has already released dozens of tapes from the JCA investigation. But until it was reported in The Inquirer, the office never disclosed that Norcross had met with a top prosecutor and that authorities had secretly audiotaped and videotaped that session.

At that meeting, Norcross urged Zarrillo to discontinue the JCA investigation, contending the allegations were politically motivated.

After the report of the meeting, the Attorney General’s Office released an audiotape of the session but denied that the meeting had been videotaped.

Last month, in fact, a state investigator and a state prosecutor told a state Superior Court judge that there was no videotape. After Judge John A. Sweeney asked for further proof, the prosecutor and two investigators reversed the state’s position, acknowledging that a videotape had been made. They claimed, however, that it had been misplaced or inadvertently destroyed.

Norcross has never been charged with a crime and has insisted that the investigation was sparked by two disgruntled political opponents, Palmyra Mayor John Gural and lawyer Ted Rosenberg.

Gural and Rosenberg contend that the Attorney General’s Office failed to diligently pursue a probe into bribery and influence peddling.

Three JCA executives pleaded guilty to minor tax charges.

“Long before this became a political football, George Norcross called for the release of these tapes,” William Tambussi, another Norcross lawyer, said yesterday. “Now he is suffering the brunt of this comedy of errors.”

Rosenberg said yesterday that he intended to file a motion in Superior Court, where the tape issue is being argued, asking that the Attorney General’s Office be held in contempt for misleading the court about the existence of the videotape.

In his filing, Rosenberg said he will ask for permission to depose all the Attorney General’s Office personnel involved in the handling of the videotape in an attempt to determine whether it exists within the Division of Criminal Justice.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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.”

Informant Details Norcross Tape

John Gural says the Democratic leader bragged about his influence in a secretly recorded chat

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POSTED: March 11, 2005

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 mgraham@phillynews.com.

IN PERSON: The Tale of the Tapes

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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.’

“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis