Category Archives: 2012

Homeless and hungry: Sobering images of Camden, New Jersey

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Welcome to Camden, New Jersey, where one in two people is living in poverty.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Camden is now the most impoverished city in the United States, with nearly 32,000 of its 77,000 residents officially struggling to survive.

The city sits just over the bridge from more affluent Philadelphia but a chronic lack of jobs and high crime rate sets it a world apart.

Camden, New Jersey, is now the most impoverished city in the United States with nearly 32,000 of Camden's residents living below the poverty line

Camden, New Jersey, is now the most impoverished city in the United States with nearly 32,000 of Camden’s residents living below the poverty line

While New Jersey’s unemployment rate is about 9.9 per cent, Camden’s is estimated to be a staggering 19 per cent. Joblessness has been a feature of life in Camden since the city lost most of its manufacturing base in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

The city is also crippled by crime with 48 homicides recorded already this year, and burglaries and assaults daily occurrences.

But Camden’s residents are pulling together to ensure the disadvantaged don’t go hungry.

Volunteers prepare meals at the Cathedral Kitchen, which was founded in 1976 to help Camden's poor and disadvantaged

Volunteers prepare meals at the Cathedral Kitchen, which was founded in 1976 to help Camden’s poor and disadvantaged

Reformed drug addict Bill Karwoski Jr. eats a free meal from Cathedral Hall

Reformed drug addict Bill Karwoski Jr. eats a free meal from Cathedral Hall

Empty and decrepit homes line Camden's streets

Empty and decrepit homes line Camden’s streets

A 21 year-old addicted to heroin looks for food in a garbage can in Camden, which is now the united States' most impoverished city

A 21 year-old addicted to heroin looks for food in a garbage can in Camden, which is now the united States’ most impoverished city

Camden police arrest a youth following a fight. The city has a chronic crime problem with 48 recorded homicides this year alone

Camden police arrest a youth following a fight. The city has a chronic crime problem with 48 recorded homicides this year alone

Scores of volunteers help out at the Cathedral Kitchen soup kitchen, which serves 300 to 600 meals a day, six days a week, to the hungry.

The Cathedral Kitchen was founded in 1976 and offers a variety of programs and life services to Camden’s poor and disadvantaged.

Even youngsters give up their time to prepare sandwiches for Cathedral Hall, which serves lunch five days a week to thousands of Camden residents having trouble affording food.

A homeless man panhandles on the street in Camden where nearly 32,000 residents are living below the poverty line

A homeless man panhandles on the street in Camden where nearly 32,000 residents are living below the poverty line

Families eat dinner at the Cathedral Kitchen soup kitchen which feeds hundreds of hungry mouths a day, six days a week

Families eat dinner at the Cathedral Kitchen soup kitchen which feeds hundreds of hungry mouths a day, six days a week

New Jersey's unemployment rate is about 9.9 per cent, but Camden's is estimated at 19 per cent

New Jersey’s unemployment rate is about 9.9 per cent, but Camden’s is estimated at 19 per cent

A youth volunteer with serves food to the needy and hungry at Camden's Cathedral Hall

A youth volunteer with serves food to the needy and hungry at Camden’s Cathedral Hall

A child walks down a street in impoverished Camden, which sits just over the bridge from more affluent Philadelphia

A child walks down a street in impoverished Camden, which sits just over the bridge from more affluent Philadelphia

Volunteers prepare sandwiches for the needy and hungry at Cathedral Hall

Volunteers prepare sandwiches for the needy and hungry at Cathedral Hall

A lack of jobs has been a feature of life in Camden since the city lost most of its manufacturing base in the late 60's and 1970's

A lack of jobs has been a feature of life in Camden since the city lost most of its manufacturing base in the late 60’s and 1970’s

Cooks prepare meals at the Cathedral Kitchen soup kitchen which serves 300 to 600 meals a day to the needy

Cooks prepare meals at the Cathedral Kitchen soup kitchen which serves 300 to 600 meals a day to the needy

A man walks by a deserted factory in Camden where almost 20 per cent of residents are out of work

A man walks by a deserted factory in Camden where almost 20 per cent of residents are out of work

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2218283/Homeless-hungry-Sobering-images-Camden-New-Jersey-expose-poverty-plaguing-United-States-destitute-city.html#ixzz3nGhnngFB
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Interference Seen in Philadelphia Papers

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Last week, Gregory J. Osberg, chief executive and publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes The Inquirer, The Daily News and Philly.com, summoned the news organization’s three most senior editors to his office.

Over three hours, he told them he would be overseeing all articles related to the newspapers’ impending sale. If any articles ran without his approval, the editors would be fired, according to several editors and reporters briefed on the meeting who did not want to be identified criticizing the company’s leadership.

In a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Mr. Osberg said the meeting did not happen. But Larry Platt, editor of The Daily News and one of the editors in attendance, said that it did. Late Wednesday, Mr. Osberg acknowledged that the meeting had taken place but denied interfering in the editorial decisions, saying he only wished to be notified of further coverage. Mr. Platt declined to comment on specifics, but said, “We fought for what we believed in,” referring to editorial independence, “and we didn’t get all that we wanted.”

The meeting was the latest incident pitting the management of the papers against the newsroom over the proposed sale to an investor group primarily made up of the area’s most powerful Democrats.

Edward G. Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor leads the group, which includes George E. Norcross III, a Democratic powerbroker in South New Jersey; the parking lot and banking magnate Lewis Katz; and Edward M. Snider, chairman of the Comcast subsidiary that owns the Philadelphia Flyers. Mr. Rendell recently told reporters he has asked the union leader John J. Dougherty Jr. (or Johnny Doc as he is known locally) to join the group.

Reporters and editors believe that coverage has been steered to favor the prospective buyers and fear what might happen once they control the papers. On Feb. 6, The Inquirer killed an article about a real estate developer who had put together a competing bid to buy the company, which went on the market earlier this month. Then, on Feb. 7, a company spokesman removed a post on The Daily News’s PhillyClout blog that mentioned other potential buyers.

The spokesman, Mark Block, said those actions were mistakes that would not be repeated. Mr. Osberg denied any editorial interference. “There is no pattern here. It doesn’t exist,” he said, adding “I have not been managing coverage of the sale and I am not doing that going forward.”

The situation in Philadelphia speaks to the vulnerability of regional newspapers. Long operated as functional monopolies with attractive margins, local papers have undergone a nosedive in earnings and advertising revenue. Having ceased to be sure-fire financial investments, these newspapers, the reporters fear, could still be attractive as a tool to advance new owners’ political and business interests.

The proposed sale could still fall through, but a completed deal with Mr. Rendell’s group would give Democrats control of the most influential newspaper in one of the most important states on the electoral map just before the 2012 elections.

“You have a former mayor and governor, the owner of a local sports team and George Norcross, who is a power player in South Jersey politics,” said Buzz Bissinger, who writes for both Philadelphia papers and wrote the book “A Prayer for the City” about the mayoralty of Mr. Rendell. Of The Inquirer, he said, “I believe it will effectively cease to be a real newspaper and become a house organ for these guys and their friends.”

The Inquirer, a 183-year-old paper with a legacy that includes 18 Pulitzer Prizes, has been battered harder than most regional papers, and its parent company ended up being bought in 2010 for $139 million, by two hedge funds, Angelo Gordon and Alden Global Capital, along with banks that held the company’s debt.

The new owners installed Mr. Osberg, who had been the president and publisher of Newsweek magazine, but the financial picture has continued to decline. According to sales documents obtained by The New York Times — marked as “highly confidential” — the company had a 13.9 percent drop in advertising revenues last year and earnings were less than $5 million. On Wednesday, the company announced a round of buyouts and potential layoffs that will eliminate 37 positions.

“The last time we were up for sale, we had a bankruptcy judge whose role was to give the orphan the best possible parents he could find,” said Karen Heller, an Inquirer columnist. “But in this sale, no one cares how people will take care of the house.”

In an interview, Mr. Rendell said his only intention in putting the group together was to save the newspapers and keep them under local control. “Any ownership group may have some interest in controlling the content of the newspaper, but ours is no more or less than that,” he said. He added that Mr. Snider is a conservative Republican. Mr. Norcross said the idea that they would buy the newspapers to push an agenda was “just silly.”

But several incidents have reinforced fears in the newsroom. An investigation about conflicts of interest among board members of the Cooper University Hospital in nearby Camden, N.J., remains unpublished after months. Mr. Norcross serves as the hospital’s chairman.

In an e-mail Mr. Norcross, who has called The Inquirer and The Daily News in the last week to discuss other coverage, said the reporter’s research “contained significant factual errors and incomplete data about the hospital and health care industry.”

Stan Wischnowski, The Inquirer’s editor in chief, said Mr. Norcross’s potential ownership has no bearing on the story. Mr. Wischnowski said that the newsroom was unhappy with the initial oversight of articles about the sale but that the issue was now being covered aggressively and without interference.

“We have a very daunting, imposing possibility in front of us,” he said. “But nothing has happened or will happen in terms of ownership that will change our rich, 183-year legacy of accountability journalism.”

On Feb. 4, a paragraph in an article on Philly.com that said the newspapers had a value of about $40 million based on historical valuations was removed from the Web site. Other media reports had said the owners were seeking $100 million.

In articles about the company’s move to an old department store building across town from its current offices, reporters were asked by management not to mention the $2.9 million tax credit the company had received for relocating within Philadelphia, according to several employees involved in the coverage.

Meanwhile, other legitimate bids for the newspapers have been blocked. Three weeks ago the billionaire investor Ronald O. Perelman approached Angelo Gordon and said his father, Raymond G. Perelman, a Philadelphia philanthropist, wanted to buy the company.

“They said, ‘Well, we’re not interested in selling it to your father,’ but they didn’t give a reason,” Raymond Perelman said. A spokesman for Angelo Gordon declined to comment.

Bart Blatstein, the local real estate developer who owns The Inquirer’s current building, said Mr. Osberg and Evercore Partners, the investment bank handling the sale, rebuffed his offers.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Blatstein said, explaining that an open auction would drive up the price. “If you’re selling a house, you’d put a sign on the lawn and let everyone know it’s for sale.”

On Tuesday, nearly 75 Teamsters marched in protest of a possible sale of The Inquirer to Mr. Rendell’s group. “They’ve stacked the deck in favor of the Rendell group and suppressed stories about other buyers, and they haven’t even bought it yet,” said John Laigaie, president of the Local 628 chapter of the Teamsters union, which represents the media group’s security guards, truck drivers and other employees.

Mr. Rendell has a complicated relationship with the media, which may have reached a low point in 1994 when he clamped his hand around the neck of Amy S. Rosenberg, an Inquirer reporter who was questioning him about potentially losing federal money for the homeless. The outbursts became so frequent the press called them “Edruptions.”

In an apology letter to Ms. Rosenberg’s editor, Mr. Rendell wrote, “Touching a reporter is inexcusable and inappropriate no matter what the circumstances.” Ms. Rosenberg, who kept the letter, said he added: “You know how Amy can get. I was just trying to slow her down.” (Mr. Rendell’s spokeswoman, Kirstin Snow, said the former governor is “an extremely engaging, friendly person and his intent has never been to harm anyone.”)

In late October, Mr. Osberg met with Mr. Norcross and Mr. Katz to discuss the Rendell group’s plans. Mr. Rendell has said Mr. Osberg is “doing a fine job” and signaled his group would keep Mr. Osberg on as chief if the deal went through.

“They can talk about civic duty all they want, but it would be naive to think they don’t want influence over a company they’re putting such significant money into,” said the Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney.

Chris Christie Pushes Camden Police Force To Disband, Despite Questions Over New Plan’s Finances

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John Rudolf Headshot

CAMDEN, N.J. — On a cold autumn night, Darran Johnson, 22, stands by the police tape strung between two trees in the housing complex where he lives with his mom and siblings. On a walkway 20 feet away, a middle-aged man lies dead, shot in the throat and head, sprawled on his back beside a battered 10-speed bicycle. His face is masked in blood that gleams bright red in the crime scene photographer’s flash.

Johnson watches tight-lipped as investigators comb the grass for shell casings. “Kids play out here. Average people live here,” he says. “I’m shaking. It’s getting too close.”

Gunfire rings out often in the neighborhood, he says, a regular reminder of the crime wave that has this city of 77,000 on pace to double its homicides in just three years, and has already shattered a nearly 20-year record for killings. With 59 homicides so far this year, the murder rate is on par with levels seen in Haiti in the chaotic aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

“A bullet has no name. If somebody shoots and I’m walking, I could be hit,” Johnson says. “People are afraid right now. You can see it in their faces.”

The crime surge coincides with new census data identifying Camden, long battered by vanishing industry, as the most impoverished city in the U.S., with 42 percent of residents under the poverty line, and an average family income of $21,191. If trends persist, Camden may soon hold the grim title of both the country’s poorest and most dangerous city.

As residents decry the violence, local leaders are readying a radical plan that they call the only practical solution at hand to calm the streets: the dismantling of the Camden Police Department and the outsourcing of policing to a new, cheaper force run by the county government, to be called the Camden Metro Division. They say the closure of the 141-year-old department and the creation of a new agency is necessary because the existing union-negotiated police contract is no longer sustainable in a time of deep budget deficits.

The plan was sold to Camden residents as a security fix: by firing the existing police force, they were told, millions of savings would be redirected into hiring about 130 new uniformed officers — a 50 percent increase over current staffing.

“It’s time to reject the status quo and ramp this police department up to a level that it needs,” Louis Capelli, director of the Camden County Board of Freeholders, which would control the metro agency, tells The Huffington Post.

City and county leaders approved the plan last year, and it cleared major legal hurdles this summer, opening the way for full implementation. Applications are being accepted for the new force, and training for the first group of hires will begin in November, according to Dan Keashen, a county spokesman. As early as next March, the old police department will be shut down for good. Other Camden County cities have been invited to join the new department, but none have shown interest yet.

On the surface, the shift to a county-run force resembles efforts in other cities around the country to save money by merging departments and regionalizing police services. But several experts say there are few specific parallels with the Camden plan, which involves a densely populated, high-crime city, and will not include any actual merger between police departments.

“I don’t know that this has been done before,” says Louis Tuthill, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University. “I have never heard of it.”

Some see the move to shut down the Camden Police Department and shift to a cheaper county-run model as a frontal attack on public safety unions. They warn the same strategy may soon be used to extract concessions from cops and firefighters across New Jersey, and ultimately the country.

“This is not a policing strategy. This is something more sinister,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Every cop in America should worry about what’s happening in Camden.”

“The taxpayers of New Jersey aren’t going pay any more for Camden’s excesses,” Christie said in a 2011 interview on MSNBC, as the police plan began gathering steam.

Christie has unique leverage to drive the plan, as the city of Camden relies on roughly $60 million in emergency state aid every year to close deep structural budget deficits and provide basic city services. According to local leaders, Christie threatened to slash this aid in the absence of major reforms. Since Christie has veto power over much of Camden’s budget, the threat carried weight. Chief among the governor’s concerns was the structure of the policing contract, says Ian Leonard, a member of the Board of Freeholders.

“The governor’s saying this is too expensive,” Leonard says. “And when someone else is writing the checks to you, you know, he or she — as my mother used to say — who holds the pen holds the power.”

To drive the plan forward, its backers have gone on the offensive, depicting the existing police contract as laden with extravagant perks negotiated by the union in better days and out of step with the current hard times. They say they have identified between $14 million to $16 million in savings to be had by cutting out wasteful “fringe” pay from $60 million in annual police spending in the city.

“Previous administrations, they gave the store away,” Capelli says.

Keashen, the Camden County spokesman, provided HuffPost with a one-page email briefly outlining how the $14 million to $16 million in savings would be achieved. According to the outline, fringe pay — which includes pension and health care benefits — will cost the county roughly $25 million in 2012. Under the new county plan, nearly 65 percent of this spending will be eliminated.

The outline did not break down the specific spending categories that would be targeted for savings, however. And further detail on the finances of the plan is not available to the public, Keashen says.

Under the terms of the plan, the city of Camden’s remaining cops will all receive layoff notices within the next few weeks. At the same time, they have the option to apply for a new job with the county-run force, though they have no guarantee of employment. And under the city and county’s interpretation of state labor law, only 49 percent of current officers will be eligible for hire with the new force.

It is a harsh calculus for a department that already suffered sweeping layoffs in 2010 as a result of a steep budget deficit. But city leaders say it is the only way forward.

“We’ve been encouraging officers to move over, get ready for the new paradigm,” Camden Mayor Dana Redd tells HuffPost. “This is the way we’re going.”

Backing the plan are Camden’s mayor and six of seven city council members — all Democrats — together with the Democratic-controlled Camden County Board of Freeholders, which represents the county’s 400,000 residents. Those involved say New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie has also been a crucial force behind the proposal. In interviews and town hall meetings over the past two years, Christie has repeatedly denounced the Camden police contract as “obscene” and described the county police plan as a common-sense measure to bring down public safety costs during tough economic times.

Brian Coleman is the only Camden city councilman to oppose the new metro policing plan. “The numbers don’t add up,” he says. Photo by Antonio Bolfo.

‘THE NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP’

Even as city and county leaders call the metro agency a done deal, it faces a growing outcry from critics who assail it as a harsh experiment in public sector union-busting and say it’s being forced on New Jersey’s most economically vulnerable population by state power brokers with little interest in Camden’s well-being.

They say the plan was crafted in secrecy and that basic information about the current police department’s finances, and budgeting for the new agency, have never been provided to the public.

Other critics focus on the county’s plan to replace seasoned officers with new recruits, with some community activists warning that an influx of young officers from outside the city could spark unrest on the streets.

The perception that older cops are being discarded as a cost-saving maneuver has also deeply embittered many in the department’s ranks, officers say.

“I might not have a job in a couple of months, after risking my life for years,” says one veteran cop, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears retaliation by his superiors.

Brian Coleman, the only Camden councilman to oppose the metro plan, says he has tried to get a full accounting of the police department’s current spending from city hall, but he’s had no success. The finances of the new police agency have never been provided to the public or discussed in detail by the city council, Coleman says.

“I’ve asked for an explanation and requested documents, but they haven’t turned them over,” he says. “The numbers don’t add up. That’s why they don’t release them.”

Brendan O’Flaherty, a Columbia University economics professor who specializes in urban finance, reviewed the one-page financial summary provided by the county to HuffPost and calls it “incomprehensible.”

“I don’t see how anybody could have made an intelligent decision on this based on the information they’ve shared,” he says. “It’s a serious breach of normal standards of transparency.”

Without a detailed financial breakdown of current spending or of the budgeting of the new metro agency, it is impossible to verify even the most basic claims being made about the proposal, says O’Donnell.

“They’re doing this under cover of darkness,” he says. “It’s beyond belief. This can’t be anything less than a scandal.”

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, says the governor “fully supports” the policing plan. He declined to comment on questions about the plan’s finances or on issues of transparency.

“Those specific questions about the savings estimates and breakdown are best directed to the county and/or city,” Roberts said in an email.

At a press conference in September, Christie praised the Camden plan and called it a model for the rest of the state, according to a transcript of comments provided by the governor’s office.

“I think this should be a wave of the future in places that are challenged like this, and so we’re certainly going to be full partners in it,” Christie said.

According to Keashen, the county spokesman, the governor’s office is currently in negotiations to provide about $5 million in start-up funds for the new metro agency. Those negotiations are in their final stages, he says.

As the plan grows nearer to reality, any chance for a smooth transition between the two agencies appears increasingly dim. The Camden Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s police union, is fiercely resisting the creation of the metro agency. Its president, John Williamson, continues to blast city and county leaders for what he calls a shameless attempt to crush the union and strip away rights earned through decades of collective bargaining.

“Would you buy a car sight unseen?” Williamson asks. “This deal is not being conducted out in the open. And the math just doesn’t add up.”

County officials reject the allegation that the plan’s finances are shaky, and maintain that the metro agency’s budget is simply not ready for public consumption.

“We’re not going to go live with a budget until it’s completely done,” Keashen says. “You’ll see at the end of the day that the numbers add up.”

Efforts to block the county plan have all faltered, including a drive in 2011 to place the new police plan up to public vote. Petitioners gathered enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, but the city sued to have it thrown out and prevailed in state court.

Opponents of the metro police plan continue to fight, however, with a new focus on building public pressure to force the city back to the negotiating table, and to forge a compromise that will save the old department. They gained a major ally in this battle in late October, when James Harris, president of the New Jersey NAACP, appeared at a press conference called by the Camden police union.

In brief remarks, Harris denounced the plan to disband the Camden Police Department as “wrong” and “unjust,” and pledged his organization’s full support.

“The NAACP will use all of our resources to stay on this issue and to bring national attention to the disrespect and the unreasonable approach to bringing about police reform in the city of Camden,” Harris said.

“Do not eliminate the Camden Police Department. Find ways of improving it, but do not eliminate it,” he said.

CAMDEN, NJ-OCT 25: A Camden police officer inspects an abandoned building looking for squatters, prostiutes, and drug dealers October 25, 2012 in Camden, NJ.
CAMDEN, NJ: A Camden police officer inspects an abandoned building looking for squatters, prostiutes, and drug dealers.

‘A WAR ZONE’

At the heart of the battle over the policing plan are Camden’s 267 cops, who face the imminent loss of their jobs, even as they contend with a city that seems to some to be spinning out of control.

Times were not always so tough in Camden, which sits on the banks of the Delaware River, across the water from Philadelphia. As recently as the 1960s, the city was an industrial powerhouse, with dozens of major factories employing thousands of residents. With a population nearly 70 percent higher than today, crime was just a fraction of its current rate.

But in 1971, long-simmering racial strife exploded into riots, accelerating the flow of middle-class whites to the suburbs. Factories closed down, taking with them about 60,000 manufacturing jobs, part of a wave of de-industrialization that hollowed out the economic heart of cities across the county. As the economy tanked, crime soared.

It has remained that way for decades, making Camden among the toughest beats in all of local law enforcement, often topping the FBI’s annual list of most dangerous cities.

Today, thousands of abandoned homes blight the streets, their porches often doubling as tombstones, with spray-painted tributes to murder victims. Across broad quarters of the city, drug dealers and prostitutes roost on stoops and street corners, scattering only for a moment at the approach of a police cruiser.

The intensity of police work in Camden can reach almost unimaginable levels. Just this September, officers handled two grisly crimes involving children that made national news. In one, a mother high on PCP decapitated her 2-year-old son, then called police to report the crime. Weeks later, a young man, also high on PCP, broke into a Camden home and stabbed a 6-year-old boy to death and savagely assaulted his 12-year-old sister. Uniformed police apprehended the killer after an intensive manhunt.

Several current Camden officers spoke about their situation with HuffPost on condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation by their superiors. They describe a department crumbling from within, whose demoralized officers feel abandoned by the city they pledged to protect. Bitterness runs deep over what they feel is a long-running campaign by city and county officials to paint Camden’s cops as ineffective, unreliable and over-compensated.

“Camden is not a joke. Some parts of this place are a war zone,” says one officer. “My friend opened up a freezer and saw a kid’s head looking back at him. He’s got to live with that the rest of his life.”

“We risk our lives every day. And this is what you get in return,” he says. “See you later and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Another veteran officer warns that replacing seasoned Camden cops with large numbers of inexperienced, lower-paid recruits — as the metro plan envisions — is a recipe for disaster. He scoffs at a recent comment by Capelli, the Board of Freeholders director, announcing that the new agency had received more than 1,000 applications, including some from states as distant as Alabama.

“They’re going to be thrown to the wolves,” he says. “If some outsider from Alabama comes in and shoots a kid, it’s a potential for some civil unrest.”

In August, county leaders announced that Camden police Chief Scott Thomson would lead the metro agency once the existing force was disbanded. For months, Thomson has spoken out in favor of the new agency – while leveling harsh criticism at members of his current force, saying it is plagued by absenteeism.

Many within the department see his role in pushing the plan as a betrayal, officers say. But they add that the sense of betrayal and abandonment extends far past Thomson, from city hall to the governor’s mansion.

“It’s a feeling of being unappreciated by your boss, by your mayor, by your government,” says a long-serving officer.

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Gang memorials to murder victims are a common sight on the porches of Camden’s thousands of abandoned and derelict homes.

‘PEOPLE ARE AFRAID’

In an interview with HuffPost, Thomson, the Camden police chief, did not dispute that officer morale is abysmal. He says spirits are understandably low given the challenges facing officers, from soaring crime on the streets to the looming closure of the department.

“It is tough. And nobody has it tougher than these guys on the front lines,” he says.

But he also says the department faces a crisis of absenteeism, a claim the police union calls exaggerated. According to Thomson, the department’s daily call-out rate is 30 percent — far above the average in other cities.

“There are some days when half the platoon calls in sick,” Thomson says.

Redd, the Camden mayor, regularly cites the absentee rate as a crucial reason for creating the county metro force.

“Given the recent spike in homicides and an absentee rate of nearly 30 percent within the Camden Police Department, I recently announced that the city is aggressively moving towards joining the Camden Metro Division,” Redd said in a statement in August.

Thomson, however, says the absentee problem is primarily due to abuse of a state family medical leave program overseen by the city, not any provision in the police union’s contract. He calls it peripheral to Camden’s overall public safety crisis. “You fix the 30 percent issue, that doesn’t change our situation,” he says. “We’re still at 1962 staffing levels.”

He says he has no comment on the $14 million to $16 million in fringe spending that county officials say they will eliminate by liquidating the current police force.

“I’m not intimately involved in the finance end of this. My primary focus is keeping the public safe,” he says. “I’m not bean counting in the back room.”

Thomson adds that he cannot agree with Christie’s assessment that Camden’s current police contract is “obscene” — or even say whether it is more or less generous than the average police contract in New Jersey.

“I don’t know. I don’t have a baseline of comparison,” he says. “Without knowing what the other contracts are, that’s a difficult comparison.”

Nevertheless, Thomson calls the current police contract unsustainable, given Camden’s dire economic situation. Switching to the metro agency will not solve all of Camden’s problems, but will boost the number of cops on the street and help bring crime to a more manageable level, he says.

“I don’t think there’s any other option,” he says. “The status quo cannot remain.”

Out on the streets, Camden residents call the city’s crime rate intolerable, and condemn the economic calculus by the city and state that forced deep cuts to policing even in the face of soaring violence. A few welcome the creation of the metro police force and the promised surge of cops on the beat. For many others, the move represents a worrying leap into the unknown.

“They’re experimenting with the lives of the people,” says Rev. David King, a local activist and a pastor at Community Baptist Church. “They’re using the city as a guinea pig.”

“People are afraid,” he says. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Camden, it’s takeover all over again

 

The same forces that orchestrated the state takeover of Camden in 2002 are behind the current plan to create a major research university  through the merger of Rutgers-Camden into Rowan: South Jersey Democrats headed by George E. Norcross.  Just as the municipal recovery legislation garnered grand promises of Camden’s revitalization, so too this latest effort to assemble assets has been cited as the key to Camden’s recovery.  And the same public narrative can be expected to ensue: first protest, then litigation, and finally Camden still struggling to survive on an uneven playing field.

The connection between the current controversy and the state takeover has been brought to mind in recent days with the passing of Randy Primas, Camden’s first African-American mayor and the state-appointed chief operating officer from 2002 until 2005.  As mayor, Primas had to accept a number of devil’s bargains in order to balance his budget: first a prison on prime waterfront property in the heart of the North Camden neighborhood, then a trash-to-steam plant that fouled the environment for residents of the Waterfront South and Fairview neighborhoods.  He also supported another state prison slated for North Camden and would have seen it in place had he not been appointed state commissioner of community affairs. Without his support, the plan withered before intense neighborhood opposition.

Years later, when he returned to Camden as chief operating officer, the shoe was on the other foot.  Now he was proposing externally-devised plans for Camden neighborhoods, most notably Cramer Hill, that generated their own intense opposition.  The effort to remake much of Cramer Hill in favor of  upscale commercial and residential structures shielded by a golf course slated to replace an abandoned landfill failed when the courts ruled the plan invalid for technical reasons. Although a new, community-based plan followed, it is yet to be acted upon.  Even with substantial funds made available under the municipal recovery legislation,  the takeover did little to improve living conditions in the city.

Instead, the takeover boosted the city’s anchor institutions, its “eds” and “meds”  as well as Adventure Aquarium, which not only privatized but also used a $25 million state investment to expand.  Market-rate housing on the waterfront that was promised as part of the return for privatization has yet to materialize. Clearly the municipal recovery intended for Camden was incomplete at best.

Now, we hear a similar story claiming grand returns for Camden should Rutgers-Camden be folded into Rowan.  In essays under his name in  the Courier-Post and the Inquirer, Norcross described the latest takeover as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”  State Senate President Steve Sweeney, working from the same playbook, used similar language in a subsequent essay.  A two and a half page, front page article describing Norcross’ vision for the city appeared in the Courier-PostFebruary 12th and was subsequently reprinted by at least one other Gannett outlet in the state.

It’s a seductive image, but an illusionary one.  Like Primas when he was mayor, Rutgers is being offered a devil’s bargain:  give up the Camden campus in order to acquire a medical school in New Brunswick.  If the governor manages to execute the plan by executive order, as he has signaled, there is nothing he or a future governor can’t do to compromise Rutgers’ integrity.   In the meantime, what will be the effect in Camden?

Proponents of the merger are quite right about higher education being underfunded in South Jersey.  So they have a case to make for greater equity for South Jersey. Where that money would be directed, however, is critical.   Sweeney asks that the public be patient and await details that were not provided in the Barer report.  But enough information has already come out to make clear what is intended.  Just as in the state takeover, the primary beneficiaries are to be those behind the effort, in this case Cooper Hospital and Rowan University.  Rowan’s own website indicates that a primary source of revenue will be tuition earned in Camden.  In their words, “administrators anticipate that a portion of the cost [for new programs] will come from funds that are no longer sent from the Rutgers-Camden campus to support Rutgers-New Brunswick operations.”   Just as significantly, Rutgers-Camden business professor Gene Pilotte demonstrates how important the acquisition of the Rutgers-Camden campus is to improving Rowan’s bond rating.  Cooper Hospital’s John Sheridan  dismisses Pilotte’s analysis as “off the mark,” without offering any evidence to the contrary. Instead, he seems to have inside knowledge that Governor Christie is  prepared to discard Rutgers’ legislative history as an autonomous institution  and seal the merger by executive action as though Rutgers were, in Sheridan’s words, a state agency.

So this is how politics plays out in New Jersey. Raw power masquerades as benevolence. Desirable ends are stated without acknowledging behind-the-scenes deals that lack accountability.  If there’s any doubt what will happen if current plans are executed, one need look only at the presumed object of reform in the Barer report itself: UMDNJ. Once that university was opened up to political influence through its governing board, the institution nearly sank in a patronage scandal.  One shouldn’t forget that one of the chief victims of that fallout was State Senator Wayne Bryant, the chief architect of the municipal recovery legislation who subsequently was convicted for taking a non-show position at UMDNJ’s facility in Stratford.

Primas, Bryant, and Norcross: they played the key roles in the state takeover of Camden.  Primas and Bryant are no longer factors, but there’s no doubt who remains out front on the Rutgers takeover.  George Norcross has a case to make for his hospital and for South Jersey, but not at the expense of Rutgers-Camden.   The city needs a vibrant Rutgers campus, not the shell of an institution whose assets are being appropriated for another institution’s benefit.  As in so many instances, behind  the rhetoric, there’s a lot of money at stake, and nothing about the Barer report or the process that created it has spelled out who is to pay and who is to benefit. As those details come out, you can be assured that behind the mask of “equity,” lies another, much darker story.

George Norcross’ Slippery Insurance Deal with Delaware River Port Authority Legal in N.J., For Now

April 01, 2012 at 6:13 AM
The political boss George Norcross holds no job or title at the Delaware River Port Authority. Yet in the state comptroller’s scathing report about financial mismanagement there, guess who plays a starring role?

Turns out, Norcross got kickbacks for steering insurance contracts from the state agency, according to the report. And what makes it worse is that using political juice like this, while a crime in some states such as New York, is apparently legal in New Jersey. That clearly needs to change.

State Comptroller Matthew Boxer has just completed an investigation — ordered by the governor — of the DRPA, the agency that controls several bridges connecting South Jersey to Pennsylvania. He found that it’s wasted millions. It sunk tollpayer money into the pockets of friends, political allies and profiteering middlemen, he found. And lo and behold, Norcross stands tall among them.

Not surprising, since the Democratic power broker runs South Jersey — but prefers to do so behind the scenes. Norcross, also the biggest name in the state’s insurance brokerage business, allegedly orchestrated a payment of $410,000 to his own company in return for recommending another insurance broker for the authority.

An additional payment went to a second broker, Michael Martucci, who happens to be an acquaintance of Norcross’ wife. When asked by the comptroller exactly what work he did to deserve his $45,000 cut, Martucci was succinct: “I performed nothing.”

Norcross, of course, disputes this version. He concedes he may have recommended these firms for the insurance work. He didn’t want the “reputational risk” of doing business with the tainted DRPA himself, he said, because it was under federal investigation. But Norcross insists he had no role whatsoever in the final selection.

The payments to his firm and Martucci were part of a broader agreement on sharing business, Norcross says. And even if we believe the most sinister interpretation of these facts, there’s nothing illegal about it.

Sadly, he is right on that last point. New York has a law that requires full disclosure of commission-sharing on local government contracts. It demands not only transparency, but evidence of actual work being done.

New Jersey has no such law and needs one badly. Over the past decade, more than $1.5 million in insurance commissions from DRPA contracts was shared among various brokers, but only some were doing actual work, the state comptroller reported. If others are being paid to do nothing, the state surely isn’t getting the best possible deal.

It took a two-year probe to pull the curtain back on these South Jersey shenanigans. Now imagine how many other backstage handshakes we pay for in this state.

Powerful Medicine: How George Norcross used his political muscle to pump up once-ailing Cooper Hospital

POSTED: March 25, 2012

In a city synonymous with failure, Cooper University Hospital is the grand exception.

Cooper’s new glass and metal pavilion rises 10 stories over downtown Camden. It cost $220 million.

The first class at its new $140 million medical school starts this summer. Nearby, rehabbed rowhouses on cobblestone streets create an oasis amid Camden’s burned-out buildings.

Behind it all is hospital board chairman George E. Norcross III, the insurance magnate who is now promoting Cooper with the same relentless focus that has made him very wealthy and arguably the top Democratic boss in New Jersey.

Born at Cooper, Norcross is unabashed in his enthusiasm for the hospital that he sees as performing vital medical, economic, and social roles. He also sees it as crucial to the rebirth of the city.

He adds: “I’ve come to see that Cooper’s interests and Camden’s are inseparable.”

But there’s something else that is inseparable — Norcross’ political muscle and Cooper’s agenda. In some ways, the hospital has become another piece of his political apparatus, to the mutual benefit of Democrats and Cooper.

In politics-drenched New Jersey, it’s not unusual for hospitals, with their big payrolls, big budgets, and big thirst for government money, to be political players. But few play the game as aggressively or with as much firepower as Cooper.

No other nonprofit hospital in New Jersey spends so much on lobbyists. In fact, it ranks among the top 25 nonprofit hospitals in America for lobbying expenditures according to national data.

With $775 million in annual revenue, Cooper is the largest hospital in South Jersey. And over the years, firms with ties to board members or those with a pattern of donations to Democrats in Norcross’ base of Camden County have won millions of dollars in hospital-related contracts, public records show.

Among those working at Cooper in recent years: Norcross’ insurance business and the law firm of his brother.

None of this is illegal. But the flow of campaign donations from firms doing business with the hospital has helped sustain Norcross’ Democratic organization, which over the last two decades has not only established control in towns and counties in South Jersey but has also become a driving force in the state capital.

At the same time, New Jersey Democrats have gone the extra mile for Cooper.

When Cooper wanted to stop another hospital from competing with it on a lucrative procedure, a phalanx of lawmakers lobbied on its behalf.

When Cooper challenged a rival’s ad campaign, a Democratic judge in Camden County ordered the competitor to pull its advertising — without hearing from the other hospital.

And when it comes to state funding, no hospital in the region and only a handful in the state have taken in as much as Cooper.

During a recent four-hour interview in the boardroom on the top floor of the new pavilion, Norcross said Cooper picked lawyers and other contractors “who are the best and brightest talents,” not for their connections, political or otherwise.

“Nobody’s making political contributions in return for business,” he said.

Any “inference there is some sort of pay to play is nonsense,” he said.

But he is unapologetic about using his clout to help Cooper. Asked, for instance, whether his power had spurred Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2009 to give Cooper a medical school by executive order, he replied:

“I sure as hell hope so. Why wouldn’t it? I plead guilty. What else do you want to ask me?”

A Turnaround

In the late 1990s, Cooper University Hospital was just another down-and-out Camden institution.

Federal prosecutors had caught its vice president for finance and its controller looting the institution, siphoning out $22 million over eight years in what the hospital itself would later call “a massive crime wave.”

With Cooper suffering from record deficits, Norcross, then a top executive at Commerce Bank, helped bring the hospital back from the brink in 1999 when he arranged for the bank to lend it $8 million.

Since then, Norcross has put his imprint all over Cooper, from its lavish marketing, to its competitive fight to lure doctors, to its recent $450 million construction boom, to the political figures who work at Cooper and serve on its board.

Just as he was one of the first pols to spend heavily on television ads for lowly county races, Norcross was among the first to sell a hospital on TV, deploying Kelly Ripa as Cooper’s pitchwoman. As it happens, she’s the daughter of Joseph Ripa, the Democratic Camden County Clerk.

The milestones have been coming faster. The medical school, a must-have for any hospital with big ambitions, is finally gearing up. This year, work began on a $100 million cancer center.

Norcross, 56, a Rutgers-Camden dropout-turned-millionaire, runs one of the country’s largest insurance brokerages, Conner Strong & Buckelew, with clients from both the public and private sectors.

He’s also part of a group of wealthy investors seeking to buy Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of The Inquirer, Daily News, and the Philly.com website. Conner Strong already provides insurance to the company and is a large advertiser.

Along with his political power, Norcross has backed Cooper with his own money. Late last year, he pledged$5 million to the hospital.

Msgr. Michael Doyle, the activist priest of Sacred Heart Church in South Camden, says he hopes Norcross is writing a fresh chapter in the grim Camden story.

“Cooper lifts the name of Camden,” he said. “It’s not people focusing on the murder rate, but on something positive.”

While critics worry about Norcross’ power, Doyle said his connections and ambition have been an asset.

“George has a lot of know-how, and a city like Camden needs know-how.”

An Economic Powerhouse

With its heavy capital spending and big operating budget, Cooper has become an economic powerhouse. It throws off millions in fees and contracts.

Consider Cooper’s heavy borrowing to pay for all that expansion. In the last decade, Cooper’s bond sales have generated $5.1 million in fees to a variety of law firms, title companies, and financial advisers. On top of that, the hospital has handed out big-ticket contracts for other legal work, such as malpractice defense, its public disclosures show.

Many of those who received work via Cooper are major political donors, giving across the state to both parties. But they have been especially generous in Camden County, Norcross’ home base.

During the last decade, firms involved with Cooper have given more than $1.5 million to Camden CountyDemocrats.

As an example, lawyers at Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia firm that worked on four Cooper bond issues, have given Camden Democrats $115,060 since 2002. That represented more than 70 percent of its local political contributions in . A Cozen spokeswoman said all donations reflected candidates’ merits.

In interviews, Norcross conceded he had input into who was selected to work on hospital bond issues, managed by state and local authorities.

“Have I made recommendations of quality firms?” he said. “Absolutely.”

But he insists that firms are selected solely on ability and that political donations were irrelevant.

“These people have been making major, sizable donations to the Democratic Party in this region long before any bond issue,” he said.

Lawyers offer Varying Explanations for their Giving.

Attorney Steven Weinstein, formerly with the Philadelphia firm of Blank Rome, has given steadily to South Jersey Democrats over the years, public records show. His giving hit a peak, in 2004 when he gave $30,000to the Camden County Democratic Committee.

The following year, Blank Rome was named one of four law firms to work on a $135 million Cooper bond issue, representing the investment firm Goldman Sachs.

In the six years since, Weinstein’s donations to Camden County Democrats came only to $2,850.

Weinstein said his donations had no connection to Blank Rome.

But David Lebor, another former Blank Rome partner who joined Weinstein in making Camden County donations in 2004, said the firm would sometimes request that lawyers make specific contributions. Lebor said he didn’t know the firm’s motives for making requests. “I don’t ask those questions,” he said.

Blank Rome spokeswoman Melissa Volin said she was not aware of the donations, but the firm had a long relationship with Goldman Sachs.

“I think it would be our reputation with Goldman Sachs that gets us work with them,” she said.

A New Image

For years, Norcross stayed in the shadows.

He has held no official position with the Democratic Party since he stepped down as Camden County chairman almost two decades ago, though no one disputes that he’s in charge.

In one unwanted moment of scrutiny, in 2005 secretly recorded tapes of Norcross surfaced from an earlierState Police investigation into corruption and government contracts.

Norcross was never charged, but he was caught on the tapes cursing, plotting against enemies, and bragging that “the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me. Because not that they like me, but because they have no choice.”

In recent years, Norcross has increasingly embraced the spotlight. He’s speaking out not as a party boss, but as the (unpaid) chairman of Cooper.

“It’s something I should have done many years ago. Remaining in the background in many ways defined me in a caricature,” Norcross said.

For many in the public, he said, his image was of a political hack, someone who “had horns and smoked cigars.” (Norcross quit smoking cigarettes 15 years ago.)

Now, Norcross, who joined the Cooper board in 1990 and became chairman in 2006, often talks up Camden and the role Cooper could play in its recovery. He boasts of how he topped the new pavilion with a huge sign.

“I wanted people to see the sign when they are coming over the bridge from Philadelphia,” Norcross said.

He says the fate of Cooper hinges on the health of the entire city.

Thus, while Cooper’s 65-member security force and scores of cameras keep watch on the rehabbed neighborhood around its campus, Norcross has been selling a new strategy to hire more police. He wants to pay for it by cutting police labor costs.

He and Gov. Christie have also joined forces on a law to permit nonprofit organizations to open four new schools in Camden. The measure’s prime sponsor: State Sen. Donald Norcross, one of Norcross’ three younger brothers.

Sparking a furor, Norcross and Christie have also proposed merging Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University, putting Cooper’s new medical school in the middle of what Norcross hopes will one day be an elite research university.

The plan has met with bitter protest from Rutgers-Camden students, faculty, and alumni, some of whom view it as little more than a power grab by Norcross. But Norcross says the merger would be a boon for the region.

“South Jersey for the first time will get its fair share of higher-education dollars,” he said.

Government Largesse

Late last year, the Delaware River Port Authority, its once-vast development kitty finally running dry, approved its last round of project spending. Among the lucky few recipients: Cooper University Hospital. It got $6 million for the cancer center.

No other hospital in New Jersey or Pennsylvania has ever received DRPA assistance, the authority says.

The DRPA money was one of many ways in which Cooper has benefited from government action during the Norcross era. This year, Cooper received $52 million in state funding, more than any hospital in South Jersey — and in the top five for all 72 New Jersey hospitals.

And U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., Camden) has set aside $640,000 in federal earmarks for Cooper over the last decade, the most of any hospital in his district. Another Camden hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes, received nothing.

And up until this year, Cooper also benefited from a state law that sent it extra money for charity care.

To see how it worked, consider Cooper and a hospital six miles away: Kennedy University Hospital in Cherry Hill.

According to figures used to give state aid last year, both Cooper and Kennedy had about the same percentage of uninsured patients: about 10 percent.

Yet when the state provided money to cover that care, Kennedy received 67 cents on the dollar, while Cooper received 95.

Under a 2004 state law written by Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), hospitals generally got paid more for treating a higher proportion of uninsured patients.

But Greenwald also included a provision mandating that one hospital in each of the state’s 10 poorest cities got the top rate automatically, regardless of its uninsured-patient load.

Last year, the only hospital that benefited was Cooper.

In an interview, Greenwald, whom Norcross recruited to run for office, said the Cooper chairman had nothing to do with the bill.

Greenwald said his measure was aimed at protecting hospital access for the urban poor. “It was never designed to help one hospital,” he said.

The exemption ended last year after Christie revised the formula to streamline the funding process.

In the interview, Norcross said the extra money for Cooper made sense given its high total number of low-income patients.

“Our cost and our burden and our responsibility is so much higher than a suburban hospital,” Norcross said.

David Knowlton, president of the N.J. Health Care Quality Institute, said assessing Cooper’s political clout required a nuanced analysis.

“There are some hospitals who get extra money politically because they exert influence,” Knowlton said.

“At the same time, Camden is one of the most impoverished cities in the country. Cooper is an anchor part of making that city right. It’s a complicated picture.”

Narrow Margins

With its large number of low-income patients, plus its heavy spending on expansion, Cooper walks a delicate financial line.

As John P. Sheridan Jr., Cooper’s chief executive officer, puts it, the 5,370-employee hospital operates on a “razor thin” margin.

And that “profit” margin has been getting thinner. In 2008, Cooper’s revenue exceeded expenses by 5 percent. Last year that edge had shrunk to just 1 percent.

And Cooper’s bond rating is one level above junk status.

In 2008, Cooper took a financial hit when it agreed to pay $3.8 million to the U.S. Treasury to settle a lawsuit alleging that it had improperly inflated Medicare bills.

This allegation was leveled against Cooper and 15 other hospitals in a civil suit brought by hospital consultant Anthony Kite in concert with the U.S. Justice Department.

After studying Cooper financial data, Kite said Cooper had doubled its inpatient Medicare charges earlier in the decade, though its costs went up just 10 percent. As a result, Kite said, Cooper saw its Medicarepayments explode by more than $50 million over three years.

“They gamed the system,” Kite said recently.

Cooper didn’t admit wrongdoing and said it settled to avoid lengthy litigation. The feds also went after other U.S. hospitals, many of which settled for much larger amounts.

While Cooper had done a lot to raise its profile in the region by focusing on high-end services like cardiology and neurosurgery, its location in Camden remains a heavy burden, experts say.

“They’ve moved up,” said Jerry Katz, a health-care consultant and former top executive at Hospital of theUniversity of Pennsylvania. But high numbers of “Medicaid and no-pay patients will hit the bottom line.”

Flood the Zone

Cooper’s ability to fight for political dollars is unmatched in New Jersey.

Its lobbying effort is a $500,000-a-year operation, involving outside firms in Trenton and Washington, as well as a group of in-house staffers, not to mention Norcross and Sheridan.

The sum includes money spent on community relations and public relations, the hospital says.

Sheridan’s old law firm, Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti L.L.P., has been a paid lobbyist for Cooper for at least a decade. More recently, the hospital put another firm on its roster.

It didn’t look far to make the hire.

In 2010, Cooper added Republican lobbyist Jeff Michaels to the team. In another lobbying venture, he is the partner of Norcross’ brother Philip.

The hospital has paid the firm solely operated by Michaels $180,000 over the last two years.

On top of the paid lobbyists, George Norcross has had a cadre of former or current politicians either on the hospital’s payroll or ready to pitch in when needed.

Some find work at the hospital, like Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, who has been a patient representative at Cooper since 1996.

Susan Bass Levin, who butted heads with Norcross as Cherry Hill mayor and later served as a cabinet member under three governors, is paid $292,000 yearly to run the Cooper Foundation, the hospital’s fund-raising arm.

Joking that at one time hospitals in Newark would have had “a ward leader as head of cardiology,” Norcross said he had hired on merit.

“There are always people who have former lives in government or politics who are extremely talented,” he said.

Dueling Ads

For other hospitals, competing against Cooper can feel like an uphill battle.

In 2009 Cooper and the Virtua health system, which operates hospitals in Camden and Burlington Counties, squared off in a bitter court battle about which one could claim it had the “most Top Docs,” based on magazine rankings.

In ads and a billboard on the Walt Whitman Bridge, Virtua said it had the largest number of “Top Docs” inSouth Jersey, a claim Cooper had been making for several years.

The struggle was nasty. In an e-mail later made public as part of the litigation, an advertising executive working on Virtua’s account said its campaign “rams it down Coopers throat.”

More than a month after Virtua launched its campaign, Cooper sued, claiming its rival’s ads were false.

On the morning of the day Cooper filed suit, its lawyer called Virtua’s 1-800 number at 7:55 a.m., leaving a message that the suit would be filed.

At a hearing a few hours later, Camden County Superior Court Judge Mary E. Colalillo ordered Virtua to stop its advertising. No lawyer from Virtua was present.

When Virtua’s lawyers finally got before Colalillo six days later, the judge said it could resume the campaign, provided it didn’t claim that its ads were based on an “independent study.”

Attorney Philip H. Lebowitz had seen enough. He moved the case to federal court.

“You don’t say ‘Why did you do this?’ to a judge,” Lebowitz said. “But we were concerned with going forward with the case in that court.”

Colalillo wouldn’t comment. During the first hearing, she described her ruling as “rare” but said the ads posed “a matter of life and death based on the decisions that are made.”

Colalillo is a former staff lawyer for the Camden County government and an assistant county prosecutor nominated to the bench in 1992 by then-Gov. James J. Florio. At the time of her nomination, an Inquirer news story described her as a Norcross political ally.

Gary Lesneski, Cooper’s general counsel, said it won the order on the strength of its case.

“Judges don’t enter temporary restraining orders because they like you,” he said.

In the end, the case was settled. Both hospitals switched to new pitches, each dumping their “Top Docs” campaign.

A Lucrative Procedure

In another bitter dispute with Virtua, Cooper again brought the heat.

Seven years ago, Cooper was fighting in court and in the capital to keep Virtua’s Marlton hospital from doing angioplasties. Cooper had already been doing the procedure, a known moneymaker.

According to documents and interviews, four New Jersey Democratic legislators wrote or called the state health commissioner to urge him to block Virtua from joining a national study that would have enabled it to do the procedures, which unblock blood vessels.

“It was very polite,” said Fred Jacobs, the former commissioner.

Those lobbying for Cooper included then-legislators John Adler, Joseph Roberts Jr., and Wayne Bryant, all Democrats from Camden County.

(Adler is now dead. Bryant is in prison on an unrelated federal corruption conviction. The new Cooper pavilion is named after Roberts, now retired from public office).

The fourth to lobby was then-Assembly Speaker Albio Sires, intervening far from his North Jersey district, sources said. Sires, now a Democratic congressman, didn’t return calls.

In the end, the campaign fell short. Jacobs wouldn’t budge and Virtua kept the right to do angioplasties.

‘Interested Persons’

In recent years, the granting of hospital business to insiders has come under increasing scrutiny, in Congressand among experts on nonprofits.

Uwe Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton University, has pushed for greater transparency at tax-exempt nonprofit hospitals to ensure that money is being spent properly.

“Over half of a typical hospital’s money is taxpayer money,” Reinhardt pointed out.

As Cooper has spent its millions, hospital insiders have frequently been on the receiving end.

From 2008 to 2010 Cooper paid more than $40 million to companies tied to the hospital’s board of trustees, according to public-disclosure documents the hospital filed with the IRS.

The payments included:

$1.6 million to Norcross’ Marlton insurance brokerage, Conner Strong and Buckelew.

$1.8 million to the Parker McKay law firm, where Philip Norcross is the firm’s chief executive.

$4.6 million to the former Commerce Bank and its successor, TD Bank. Norcross and a former Cooper board member were top executives at Commerce.

$277,000 to Riker Danzig, where Sheridan was once a law partner.

But of the millions in payments, the largest share — $33 million — went to a joint venture between international construction giant Turner Construction and HSC Construction and Builders in Exton.

Former board member Edward Viner’s son, Jim, serves as president of HSC.

Most of the money was passed through to subcontractors and the joint venture was paid $2.8 million in fees, Cooper said.

In 2008 and 2009, the last years for which regional data were available, Cooper initially reported more of what the IRS calls “Interested Persons” transactions than any hospital in the Philadelphia area.

In those same years, Philadelphia’s three largest hospital groups reported varying degrees of deal-making with firms tied to their boards.

The largest, Penn Medicine, reported $1.1 million in such contracts. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphiareported $19.3 million — stemming mostly from money paid to the CVS pharmacy chain, where one of its board members at the time served as an executive.

Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals reported no contracts with insiders.

After The Inquirer began working on this article, Cooper amended its 2009 IRS disclosure report, reducing the reported insider dealings by 94 percent.

Lesneski told The Inquirer that “as a result of your inquiries,” Cooper reexamined its past forms.

This prompted Cooper to remove many contracts from its disclosure, such as the large contract to Turner/HSC, he said.

Cooper concluded that the stake of Viner’s son in the construction joint venture was less than the 5 percent ownership threshold that triggers reporting, Lesneski said.

Legal interpretations of what hospitals should report vary, said Jill Manny, executive director of New York University’s National Center on Philanthropy and the Law.

The IRS rules “aren’t perfectly clear,” she said. “The accountants are the ones that make the decision on what to report and not report.”

Hospitals often try to avoid having attorneys and other professionals whom they do regular business with on their boards, said Sally Roslow, vice president of development with the N.J. Hospital Association.

“You can’t untangle that,” said Roslow, who was not speaking specifically about Cooper. “Usually in good ethical conscience, a lawyer will step down [from a hospital board] while that law firm is there.”

Cooper officials say the hospital followed all IRS rules governing disclosure of these transactions and, in those cases where there was a potential conflict, board members recused themselves from voting.

Cooper declined to provide details about its various contracts, such as the figures for competing bids. That said, there is no indication that anyone got a sweetheart deal.

A Showdown

For decades Camden officials — including Norcross’ own father, a Cooper board member before him — had pushed for a medical school for Cooper.

But it was George Norcross who got it done with his trademark mix of bluster, determination, and political juice.

In his campaign to win the school, Norcross took the Cooper helicopter to the Newark offices of theUniversity of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to confront the man he saw as standing in his way.

Norcross believed that William F. Owen Jr., then UMDNJ’s president, had secretly backed away from his public support for a Camden medical school.

Norcross described the session bluntly:

“He was confronted. It was apparent that he had got caught lying, not only to us but to everyone he had pledged this medical school to.

“I’m sure it was a less than pleasant meeting for him. I don’t threaten people — I’m sure I called him a liar. He was a liar. He is a liar. He was an incompetent leader of UMDNJ.”

Owen declined to talk about the meeting, beyond issuing a brief statement saying he never had the power to authorize a medical school.

However, Richard J. Codey, New Jersey’s governor at the time, said Owen told him that he had been shocked by the episode.

Owen, according to Codey, “said he had never had a conversation like that in his life, that he [Norcross] comes in a helicopter and says: ‘This is what we’re doing, whether you like it or not. This is what’s coming down.’ ”

Norcross was right in his forecast. In June 2009, Gov. Corzine, who had succeeded Codey, issued an executive order setting aside millions in state money to open the medical school at Cooper.

In one stroke, Corzine bypassed the Legislature, angering North Jersey lawmakers.

“The way it was done was cloak-and-dagger,” Codey said recently. “This was all behind the scenes, and the timing was on purpose, ensuring the Legislature couldn’t take a look at it.”

For Norcross, though, it was another case of him besting the “Northern barons,” the people with “historic hostility to anybody who resides south of Exit Six of the turnpike.”

“Now when you do that, you are going to get some folks angry.”

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

Former staff writer Chelsea Conaboy contributed to this article.

___

(c) 2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Broad Foundation Grant Terms: Gov. Christie Must Stay in Office

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By | December 14, 2012

December 13, 2012; Source: Newark Star-Ledger

Thanks to the intrepid legal work of David Sciarra of the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., the public has learned that a $430,000 grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to the state of New Jersey is predicated on Gov. Chris Christie staying in office. Is this a grant to the state of New Jersey or a grant to Gov. Christie’s New Jersey? Does a foundation get to tell a nonprofit board of directors not to change executive directors or a state’s voters and legislators not to change governors or else the grant is torpedoed? Does the Broad represent a foundation using its funding to dictate public policy from behind the scenes?

The Broad Foundation grant is in support of various educational reforms in the state, with performance benchmarks such as a 50 percent increase in the number of charter schools or the number of high quality charter schools, depending on which way one reads the grant language. It is not the first Broad grant to New Jersey, having been preceded by extensive support to the state’s Department of Education aimed at “’accelerat(ing)’ the pace of ‘disruptive’ and ‘transformational’” change. The Christie-contingent Broad Foundation grant raises so many troubling questions that one hardly knows where to start.

To begin with, Broad included conditions in this current grant that are astonishing, requiring that all public announcements of the program by the state have to be cleared with the Broad Foundation. The grant contains a lengthy provision about making documents, files, and records associated with the grant the property of the Foundation. Are these materials, generated and used by the government as a result of the grant, not to be disclosed to the public? Is the foundation telling government—and the legislature and the voters—what they should accept as public versus private? A foundation spokesperson’s contention that this only applies to a sliver of files containing “personal information” doesn’t seem to fit with the fact that Sciarra and his Center only found out about the terms of this Broad grant at all, much like other Broad funding in the state, by pressing for disclosure through the state’s Open Public Records Act. Giving some definition to the Foundation’s narrow commitment to transparency, the grant agreement adds, “If the state is legally required to make any of these materials public — either through subpoenas or other legal process — it must give the foundation advance notice of such disclosure so that TBF may contest the disclosure and or/seek a protective order.”

Is this what behind-the-scenes, foundation-directed government looks like? Remember that Broad has been paying for a special advisor to Christie’s education commissioner, Christopher Cerf, who himself is a product of the Broad Foundation’s training programs. Is it too much to suggest that this grant is not just predicated on Christie staying in office, but on Christie’s keeping Broad product Cerf in place? Doesn’t the legislature—and don’t the voters—have a say in who runs the government? Shouldn’t the legislature and the voters know what the government is agreeing to do or forego in return for getting money from a private foundation?

This also raises the question of whether other education funders allied with the Broad Foundation are attaching similar requirements on their grant support for New Jersey schools. For example, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, already a controversial donor to Newark public schools, has committed funding behind the Broad Foundation plan to support regional assistance centers to work with superintendent Cerf on school turnarounds. A batch of Zuckerberg grant money was accepted by the state’s Board of Education at the same time as the Broad Foundation’s $430,000 grant was received. Do Zuckerberg’s grants require the continuation of Cory Booker in Newark or Christie in the state capitol, or do they establish secrecy requirements like the Broad Foundation’s grant conditions?

Sciarra thinks that the Broad grant may be “precedent-setting to require that an elected official remain in office as a condition for a grant,” but we suspect that he is wrong, especially in the arena of education reform as practiced by those promoting charter schools. Think of the pushback that arose as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided support to states for the “Race to the Top” initiative with pretty clear evidence of what states would have to do to qualify for the Gates money (see here and here). Or consider the foundations that provided funding to Washington, D.C. schools predicated on the necessary presence of Michelle Rhee as chancellor. The Broad Foundation was part of the group of foundations in that case, tying their grant support to Rhee’s continuation in office.

There is nothing wrong with foundations giving grant support to public entities such as the New Jersey Board of Education or the Newark public schools, but when foundations engage with the instruments of democracy, they have to play by the rules of democracy. That means being open and above board in their dealings, subjecting themselves, their grants, and their interactions with government to the requirements of transparency and disclosure, and not sheltering themselves from the voices of voters. Foundations know how desperate governments are for funding. They know how much leverage, despite their claims to the contrary, they can exercise over government officials. They ought to realize how their involvement can distort the democratic process, whether intentionally or otherwise.

If foundations were to open up on this matter, how many other foundation grants to public sector entities might we find that include language tying the grants to the presence of specific political figures remaining in office? How many other grants to the public sector might we find requiring a foundation to retain confidential ownership and control over documents, files, and communications that are generated and used by public sector grant recipients?—Rick Cohen