Category Archives: Corporate Responsibility

Inquirer Editor Reinstatement Case Brings Out the Powerful and Connected

Pennsylvania Record Report

Nov. 14, 2013, 11:33am

It was an interesting dichotomy in Judge Patricia McInerney’s sixth-floor

courtroom at Philadelphia City Hall on Wednesday, as veteran newspapermen and women sat near high-profile attorneys and the politically connected, with many of the latter serving as subjects in the journalists’ past news stories.

What brought everyone together on this day, however, was a lawsuit initiated last month by two members of the parent company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer who are suing other controlling members over the firing of editor William Marimow.

Lewis Katz, who made his money in parking lots, and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a well-known philanthropist, are two members of Interstate General Media, an investors’ group that last April purchased the Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and the website Philly.com.

They are suing their counterpart, George Norcross, and the limited liability company itself over allegations that they were left out of the decision to terminate Marimow’s employment.

Katz in particular takes issue with the firing since he and Norcross are supposedly equals, with each having ponied up the same amount of money to buy the newspapers and website, and each serving as members on a management committee that have equal say on hiring’s and firings.

On Wednesday, what began as a mere procedural hearing turned into a daylong event, as witness after witness took the stand to offer testimony in the case.

McInerney, who late last month ruled the litigation could proceed at Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court, despite the fact that Interstate General Media was incorporated in the State of Delaware, is proceeding over an injunction request in which the plaintiffs seek Marimow’s reinstatement as editor.

The plaintiffs also seek declaratory judgment that Robert Hall, the man who canned Marimow, is no longer publisher of the Inquirer.

(Hall’s name still appears as publisher on the Inquirer’s masthead).

At the heart of the lawsuit is the contention by Katz and Lenfest that Norcross and his camp breached a partnership agreement in not informing the plaintiffs of the decision to fire Marimow, who, despite not being a party to the litigation, testified during Wednesday’s proceeding.

The plaintiffs, who are being represented by veteran Philadelphia attorney and octogenarian Richard Sprague, also both testified Wednesday about their involvement with the Inquirer’s still fledgling parent company.

“Our pledge was we would not interfere,” Katz testified.

Katz and Lenfest claim that Norcross broke that pledge to not get involved in the editorial operations of the newspaper.

Norcross says Hall singlehandedly made the decision to fire Marimow.

The defense claims the plaintiffs are the ones who stuck their noses in newsroom business.

On the stand, Lenfest said he never approved of Marimow’s termination.

“I objected to the termination of Bill Marimow,” Lenfest testified.

Lenfest maintains that his colleague, Katz, needed to approve of the firing as per the terms of the management agreement because of Katz’s seat alongside Norcross on the management committee.

(Norcross, who didn’t testify on Wednesday, was accompanied to court by former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The relationship between the two was unclear, although one individual in court said Chertoff is part of Norcross’s inner circle).

Norcross is perhaps best known for his strong political ties to the Democratic Party in South Jersey.

His brother is New Jersey State Sen. Donald Norcross.

On the stand, Katz said he always wanted to ensure that he and Norcross shared equal power because both had shucked out the same number of dollars to purchase the newspapers and Philly.com.

Katz testified that the reason behind the decision to institute a hands-off approach when it came to newsroom operations and editorial decisions was that some in the community, including reporters themselves, shared concerns that Interstate General Media members would influence news stories because of their political ties.

Katz testified that he had wanted to hire the best editor he could find to help alleviate some of those concerns.

And that man was Marimow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was teaching at Arizona State University when he got the call about returning to Philadelphia in the spring of 2012 to run its newsroom.

Hall, the publisher, who ended up firing Marimow on Oct. 7, had told Marimow that 60 to 70 percent of the newsroom staff had opposed the editor’s return to the paper, Marimow testified.

“I wondered whether I made a mistake in accepting the job,” he said on the witness stand.

Marimow said he was assured by Katz that Katz and Norcross had power over hiring and firing, not Hall.

At the time of his termination, Marimow said he told Hall, “I don’t think that what you’re doing is legal or proper.

“He said, ‘I have my legal opinion and you have your legal opinion,’” Marimow testified.

Marimow said he initially agreed to return to the newspaper to help alleviate some of the tension.

“I care deeply about the Inquirer and this community,” he said. “I knew I could be effective in returning.”

It has been alleged that Hall fired Marimow because of the editor’s refusal to fire top newsroom staff.

In court on Wednesday, Marimow said he believed that the firings were unnecessary to make room for new hires, which is what the publisher gave as the reason for terminating three deputy editors in particular.

It has been said that Hall fired Marimow because Marimow was not on board with the company’s goal of focusing more on local news coverage, rather than something like investigative reporting, which is what the paper is perhaps best known for.

Marimow disputed the notion that he was not on board with the local news focus goal, testifying that he “treasured local news.

“Mr. Hall, I think, knows I love local news,” he said.

Nevertheless, Marimow testified, Hall continued to press the editorial firings.

It was not immediately clear when McInerney, the judge, would rule on the injunction request seeking Marimow’s reinstatement and Hall’s ouster.

Rutgers board of governors chair will fight bill to increase political appointees

Print

the-star-ledger-logo.png

By Kelly Heyboer and Matt Friedman/The Star-Ledger
May 30, 2014

NEW BRUNSWICK — The 15-member Rutgers University board of governors is the right size and does not need Trenton lawmakers adding more political appointees, the board chairman said Thursday in his first remarks about a controversial measure to expand the school’s powerful governing body.

Gerald Harvey, the board chairman, said he planned to submit written testimony to the state Legislature on Monday calling for lawmakers to reject a proposal introduced by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to increase the board to 19 members.

“The bill isn’t necessary,” Harvey said. “Each of the governors I’ve spoken to have told me they don’t think the bill is a good idea.”

Sweeney riled many at Rutgers when he introduced a bill to add four members to the board, which oversees the 65,000-student state university. Under the current system, eight members are appointed by the governor and seven are chosen by the Rutgers board of trustees, a separate body made up mostly of university alumni. Proponents say the system helps keeps political influence and meddling in Rutgers affairs to a minimum.

Under Sweeney’s proposal, the four new members of the board of governors would all be political appointees, shifting the balance of the board. The governor would get to fill 10 seats, and the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the General Assembly would each get to fill one seat. The trustees would continue to control seven seats.

The Rutgers board of trustees is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting about the legislation at noon today on the New Brunswick campus. The 59-member group is expected to vote to oppose the bill.

Sweeney said Rutgers officials were overreacting to his proposal to expand the board by adding four new members — all with medical and health backgrounds — to reflect the university’s recent addition of several new medical and health science schools.

“They’re having an emergency meeting tomorrow, for what?” Sweeney said. “This is them running around saying the sky is falling, and honestly it’s not. Nowhere in the bill does it do anything to hurt the trustees.”

The showdown over the expansion of the board of governors is the latest skirmish between Sweeney and Rutgers officials. In 2012, the Rutgers board of trustees led a successful fight to derail a plan backed by Sweeney and his political patron, George Norcross, the most powerful Democrat in New Jersey, to merge Rutgers-Camden and nearby Rowan University in Glassboro.

Norcross is chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, which has partnered with Rowan in a new South Jersey medical school.

In what some say was political payback, Sweeney introduced legislation to eliminate the board of trustees, saying Rutgers did not need two governing bodies. But the measure failed.

Sweeney has repeatedly said Rutgers’ system of governance is antiquated and needs to be updated — especially after the school found itself at the center of several sports-related scandals in recent years.

The state Senate’s higher education committee plans to hold a hearing Monday in Trenton on Sweeney’s new bill (S-1860) to expand the board of governors. Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) has proposed an identical bill in the Assembly.

Harvey, the board chairman, said he could not attend Monday’s hearing in Trenton, but would submit written testimony opposing the measure that would be read by a fellow board member.

Harvey said he would argue that adding four new members to the board with medical backgrounds — to reflect Rutgers’ addition of medical schools last year — is unnecessary. The board already expanded from 11 to 15 members last year after Rutgers’ merger with the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

“The (Sweeney) bill addresses a need that was already addressed,” Harvey said. “This proposed bill simply muddies the water.”

In addition, he said, the board would soon have a number of open seats because the terms of several members are expiring, providing the opportunity to add more members with medical backgrounds. Harvey’s own term on the board is among those ending next month.

Sweeney is not the only one questioning whether Rutgers’ governance system needs to be reformed. Last summer, Rutgers formed a task force to study its governing boards after it merged with UMDNJ. The task force was headed by the Rev. M. William Howard Jr., pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, who is a former chairman of the Rutgers board of governors.

Howard’s group submitted its recommendations over the winter, though Harvey said he and Dorothy Cantor, the chairwoman of the board of trustees, had chosen not to make them public while the university continues to consider reforms.

The task force did not recommend expanding the board of governors or eliminating the board of trustees, Harvey said.

The two boards are continuing to study whether they need to make some changes, including reforms to their committee systems.

“Sen. Sweeney’s bills have been a distraction,” Harvey said.

Philadelphia Inquirer Chair Testifies Norcross Controls Board, Decisions

The Associated Press

 

on November 13, 2013 at 8:53 PM, updated November 13, 2013 at 9:29 PM

PHILADELPHIA — As feuding owners fight for control of Philadelphia’s two largest newspapers, the board chairman testified that politically powerful co-owner George Norcross runs the show.

Norcross is an insurance executive and Democratic powerbroker in New Jersey. He and five other business leaders pooled $55 million to buy The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News last year.

However, philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the board chairman, said that 18 months later, “everything is really done @ the direction of Norcross.”

The declaration came as a judge weighs a lawsuit seeking to undo last month’s firing of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, and oust the publisher who fired him.

Fellow investor Lewis Katz, the former New Jersey Nets owner, testified that he and Norcross bought equal shares of the company for $16 million apiece, so that they would both have to agree on major decisions. They had never worked together previously.

Yet Katz said Marimow was fired last month without his consent. He and Lenfest have sued their partners over the firing.

Common Pleas Judge Patricia McInerney must decide whether to return Marimow to the newsroom and oust Publisher Bob Hall, who fired him. The Norcross faction argues such a move would cause yet more turmoil in the troubled newsroom.

The hearing continues Thursday, when Katz’s testimony resumes. Norcross may also take the stand. His roster of lawyers in the City Hall courtroom includes Michael Chertoff, the former U.S. appeals court judge and Transportation Security Administration secretary.

Katz, in his testimony, said the owners signed non-interference pledges to assuage concerns that they would meddle in editorial decisions. But it’s unclear whether the pledge was meant to include hiring or firing the editor.

Lenfest called that a business decision under the owners’ domain.

Hall, though, has argued that he had the unilateral power to fire Marimow, who refused to follow Hall’s order to fire five senior editors.

Marimow said he had assurances that Hall did not control his fate.

He testified that he was hired by Katz and Norcross, after conversations mediated by then-investigative reporter Nancy Phillips, who is Katz’s longtime companion. She had worked with Marimow during his previous stints as editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.

Phillips, now the city editor, said she helped work on an “official version” of Marimow’s hiring, for public consumption, that said then-Publisher Greg Osberg had been involved. The story was meant to protect Osberg’s feelings, she said. Osberg testified that he had no part in the hiring, and quit six weeks later.

The media company also operates the free Philly.com website, now run by Norcross’ 25-year-old daughter, and fee-based websites for each newspaper.

It’s changed hands five times in the past seven years and, like its peers in the industry, dropped precipitously in value. The company sold for $515 million in 2006, nearly 10 times its purchase price last year.

George Norcross Ally Joins Rutgers Board of Governors

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Amid a long line of political controversies between State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Rutgers University, the New Jersey Senate confirmed the Governor Chris Christie’s appointment of William M. Tambussi to sit on the school’s Board of Governors.

Both Sweeney and Tambussi are close allies of George Norcross III, one of the state’s most powerful unelected political players.

Tambussi is a partner at Brown and Connery, LLP, a South Jersey law firm which has represented George Norcross, as well as Cooper Health Systems, where Norcross serves as the Chairman of the Board.

On August 19, the Senate voted to approve Tambussi’s appointment to the board, which is a combination of individuals appointed by the state’s Governor and others selected from amongst the 59-member Board of Trustees.

“Rutgers is a valuable resource for all the residents of New Jersey,” Tambussi said, adding that the Camden campus would be the focus of his service on the board.

“I think the Camden campus is a very integral part of that. My primary goal is to see the Camden campus is enhanced to its full extent.”

Governor Christie had nominated Tambussi to the Board of Governors, as part of a larger package of appointments, back in May 2013.  Senator Sweeney blocked his nomination, along with several of Christie’s other nominees.

According to a 2008 PolitickerNJ report, Brown and Connery  is considered one of New Jersey’s most powerful law firms.

A 2014 Financial Disclosure Statement shows that Tambussi is a partner for Lawland Associates, a Labor Attorney for the Vineland City Housing Authority, a Municipal Attorney for Chesilhurst Borough, and a Special Counsel Professional for Pennsauken Township.

Sweeney had argued against Governor Christie appointing New Brunswick resident Martin Perez to the Board of Governors.  In his argument, Sweeney cited the new requirement of New Jersey state law to have at least one board member from Essex and Camden County.

However, the Superior Court in New Jersey ruled that Tambussi’s appointment satisfied the Camden County requirement.

RE-EDUCATING CAMDEN – ONE SCHOOL AT A TIME

logo-110
  | JUNE 10, 2011

Democratic power-broker George Norcross wants to see eight charter schools in Camden, and Gov. Christie has some ideas, too.

The Lanning Square site in downtown Camden that is slated for the state’s first “renaissance school.”

This time, Democratic power-broker George Norcross wasn’t on stage with the governor, but at the rear of the sweltering crowd gathered yesterday for Gov. Chris Christie’s second visit to Camden in a week.

The governor was introducing his “Transformation Schools” plan, a small pilot program that would permit private companies to take over the management of select poorly performing public schools.

But even though the governor was at the podium, much of the attention was on Norcross.

With good reason.

Norcross — who characterized the Camden public school system as a “prison” and a “sewer”— spoke to reporters at length and said that his family foundation and the Cooper Health System and University Hospital, of which he is chairman, plan to provide resources for what could be a chain of charter schools.

The priority for Norcross is a charter built on the site of the former Lanning Square Elementary School, adjacent to the construction site for Cooper’s medical school in downtown Camden. But that’s just the beginning.

Norcross said he has held meetings with a number of charter management organizations already in Camden, including Mastery and Camden Promise. And he said action on the proposal would come soon, even if no application has actually been filed with the state as yet.

Schools Development Authority

The property itself is in the hands of the state’s Schools Development Authority (SDA), and has been slated for a Camden district school under the court-ordered school construction program.

Those plans have been put on the back burner, and while not speaking about Lanning Square specifically, SDA officials said last week that they are considering a number of different options about a variety of properties.

“We are considering a number of possibilities on all SDA-owned properties as we determine the best approach to meet the facility needs that exist in SDA districts while ensuring fiscal responsibility,” said spokeswoman Edythe Maier. “Until decisions have been made and a public announcement is appropriate, the SDA is not in a position to discuss the future plans for any SDA-owned sites.”

A Man with a Plan

But Norcross sounded like a man who viewed those more as formalities than obstacles. He spoke at length about the crisis in Camden schools and the urgency in providing choices to families. He said some of his plans could also incorporate Christie’s for public-private partnerships, but the central point is a new school that will be located on the Lanning Square site.

“We’re moving ahead regardless,” he said. “There is no question there will be a school there, but the question is will it be a charter or something like the governor discussed today.”

He called some of Camden’s public schools little more than “juvenile prisons.”

And standing outside on South 3rd Street, where the governor’s press conference was held, Norcross said the foundations providing the same kind of financial support to Camden public schools would be equally fruitless.

“See that sewer drain?” he said, to a gathering group of a half-dozen reporters. “That is what giving them money would be like.”

Norcross wasn’t stopping with one charter school either. “I would be happy if we had eight charter schools under the Cooper engagement,” he said, roughly a quarter the size of Camden’s entire district.

Coming Out

The comments continued an extraordinary coming-out in the past few months for Norcross on school reform issues. Known to be a bit camera-shy, Norcross last week stood with Christie at a graduation to push for school vouchers and the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

A close ally of Camden Mayor Dana Redd and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and now a Christie stalwart, Norcross is in good position to press his visions for reform in Camden’s schools.

The new proposal from Christie and his acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf adds some more twists to governor’s own agenda. Under the plan, local school boards would petition to the state to be one of five pilot districts that could use “education management organizations” (EMOs) to run their lowest-performing schools.

New Jersey has more restrictive rules than most, but EMOs can now run charter schools, under some conditions. Christie’s proposal would move EMOs into local district schools as well, and would be the equivalent of the districts themselves remaking their most troubled schools. Still, the new schools would be accountable to the state, Christie said.

It’s not a new idea, either, and EMOs are currently operating schools in 31 states. They have become a prime option with federal turnaround grants as well.

“We’re putting this together with our other education reforms, and hoping that the legislature will pick it up,” Christie said.

Cerf said local buy-in was critical. “It’s a different kind of public school,” he said. “It’s all about local decision-making.”

Still, the proposal will be controversial in itself, especially with both Cerf and Christie, to a lesser degree, having histories in for-profit education. Cerf in much of the 1990s was president of Edison Schools Inc., a pioneering private management company that operated schools in Philadelphia to limited success. Christie as a private lawyer lobbied for the same company.

When asked by a reporter, Christie yesterday dismissed his history with Edison as influencing his proposal, only saying all options should be considered to improve the schools. Edison also has since moved away from school management.

Christie said he was not guaranteeing that Camden would be among those chosen under his plan if the proposal is enacted, but he didn’t hide his preference as he stood before the temporary Lanning Square School.

“Let’s get the legislation passed first,” he said. “And then I can come back to Camden to sign it.”

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union, quickly came out to denounce the proposal.

“While the details of Gov. Christie’s plan are very vague, the objective is clear,” said NJEA president Barbara Keshishian in a statement.

“It is part of his ongoing effort to privatize public education in New Jersey. Under the guise of helping students, he is attempting to create a system that would funnel taxpayer dollars to private companies.”

Copyright 2014 NJ Spotlight

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

NPQ-Header

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

George Norcross: The Man Who Destroyed Democracy

Underlings fear his wrath. Governors kowtow to his enormous political power. He might even have been prosecuted a decade ago if not for a bungled criminal investigation. But does all that make the new Inquirer owner, you know, a bad guy?

images

In a story this profane, a story about power and legacy, fathers and sons, a story in which F-bombs rain down in a kind of grid pattern designed to make sure offense is taken, it’s probably best to warm up, first, with an inappropriate reference to the female anatomy.

In this bit, George Norcross III, one of the new owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, calls Bill Ross on his cell phone and asks him to put out a press release.

“I want you,” he says, “to condemn the Teamsters.”

There was an inflatable rat going up outside the Inquirer building on North Broad Street—the why doesn’t really matter—and Norcross wanted Ross’s help. This struck Ross as odd. As executive director of the Newspaper Guild, representing editorial, advertising, circulation and finance employees, Ross generally tries not to hurl invective at the unions representing other disciplines.

“No,” he said.

But the thing about Norcross is, he asks. Then he cajoles. Sometimes, if circumstances dictate, he makes an offer. According to Ross, Norcross called back and said, “Look, if you put out the release, I’ll let you pick the brand of coffee we provide free to employees.”

Now, in terms of incentives to compromise on his union principles, picking a type of coffee doesn’t reach Ross’s bar. He remained a no. The next day, another newspaper union issued a release critical of the Teamsters. So Norcross called again. He made an assessment of Ross, this man with whom he would later be negotiating, and went right after his manhood.

“You’re a pussy,” he said.

The relationship between Ross and Norcross, such as it is, has never really improved, especially considering the thing with the water bottle.

That event took place in person, in the conference room down the hall from Ross’s office, where one day last spring Norcross showed up, unannounced. He told Ross that the new ownership group needed to renegotiate all the preexisting contracts it had inherited when it bought the company weeks before. Moreover, he wanted Ross and the Newspaper Guild to let go of any seniority protections: If there were layoffs, tenure should offer no sanctuary.

He sat there, confident, in French cuffs, swigging from a water bottle, his pile of white hair looming, and he said to Ross, “My father used to say that seniority will be the death of the labor movement as we know it.”

Norcross’s late father, George Norcross Jr., served as president of the AFL-CIO unions in South Jersey. But Ross didn’t believe any labor leader would attack seniority, retorting: “I’m sure your dad never said that.”

“We need to get rid of the deadwood,” Norcross responded. “We’re paying your members just to breathe.”

“You’re talking to me like I’m a jerk-off,” said Ross at one point.

“No, not at all,” Norcross shot back. “I think you’re the smartest labor guy I ever worked with.”

“Now you’re just patronizing me,” Ross retorted. He ended the meeting, “Why don’t you just get the fuck out—and take your water bottle with you.”

Norcross responded by securing his water bottle tightly in his right hand and flinging it off the far wall—nowhere near Ross, but in a sense, right at his crotch. Then he walked out the door.

There are some disagreements over the particulars of these stories. (Norcross, for instance, doesn’t remember offering Ross a chance to pick the brand of coffee.) But what everyone can agree on is that both stories sound just like what we’d expect of George Norcross—a man many of us have heard of, and none of us actually knows.

An insurance executive and the unquestioned leader of the South Jersey Democratic party, Norcross holds unshakable influence over offices from the mayor of Collingswood to the Camden County freeholders to the state senate. Within New Jersey, he boasts true omnipotence—his alliances with North Jersey Democrats are so strong that no governor can ignore his wants, and he is second only to Governor Chris Christie in terms of influence. But despite his great power over public offices, he has seemed to prefer that we not know him. For decades, through the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s, Norcross kept to the shadows. He built a fortune in the relative anonymity of the insurance business. He led meetings in the political back rooms. And the little that leaked out to the rest of us cast him in villainous terms. On clandestine law-enforcement recordings, made public in 2005, Norcross boasted of his power and promised to make a profane end of his opponents—rapid-f­iring F-bombs and saying he’d see to it that those who crossed him were “punished,” “fired” and “crushed.”

He used the kind of language we associate with the Mob, and practiced an old-school bossism in which he engineered and exacted political victories and revenge. And this image of him, as a man reveling in power and gluttonous for more, seemed indelible. But in the past few years, something shifted.

George Norcross III started behaving in new and surprising ways. He emerged from the political back rooms. He started speaking publicly, eloquently, delivering a new narrative, in which he is the devoted son of a dedicated father, in which he has always held our best interests at heart. He started pursuing community-building initiatives in poverty-stricken Camden. He even extended his reach across the river and into Philadelphia, where this past year he became a driving owner behind the new group in charge of philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News.

And so the question is how we should react to this change. We could be happy that he has gone public, and we could accept his presence and his aid, gratefully, because cities like Camden and institutions like the Inquirer and regions like ours can use all the help we can get. If that’s the case, what’s a little naughty language among friends? But those who feel run over by the Norcross machine would probably express a different desire: to see their assailant get the same rough treatment he’s so infamous for delivering; to see the rich and powerful George Norcross III finally, as he himself might put it, get fucked.
Mayors, governors, congressmen and senators come and go—striding into the spotlight of public office and toddling off to a comparatively quiet life. But the power of George Norcross III seems only to expand.

Norcross, a millionaire many times over, continues to preside over Marlton-based Conner Strong & Buckelew—an insurance firm on a large campus punctuated by a helicopter landing pad. Residents of the populated area objected to the helipad, but this is Norcross territory, politically, and he won the necessary approvals, enabling him to fly to and from meetings, his arrival announced by the ominous whup! whup! whup! of rotor blades.

Of late, some of his ends—the expressions of his power—are at least arguably, if not definitively, good. He worked with Christie to force a new, closer relationship between South Jersey’s state universities, Rutgers and Rowan, that figures to benefit both. He has presided over a half-billion-dollar expansion of Cooper University Hospital, in Camden, including the opening of a prestigious new medical school. He recently got the go-ahead to build KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in Camden’s Lanning Square neighborhood. And he has held numerous meetings with prominent South Jersey citizens, passionately extolling the virtues of switching to a county-based police force, a move he believes will bring better services at a reduced cost.

All of these initiatives are aimed, ostensibly, principally, at improving the future prospects of Camden, the most p­overty-stricken city in America. And it seems that if this were the beginning and end of the George Norcross story, he would be in line for some serious attaboys, if not outright tearful hugs.

The issue is that the George Norcross story is so much more, a story in which the ends, while themselves sometimes dubious, are often overshadowed by the means, which are frequently repugnant. Consider the manner in which Norcross’s power seems to threaten, well, democracy, as if the whup! whup! of the rotor blades bearing him aloft signals an invasion from the highest, most distant tax bracket above. In the past few years, Norcross used that lofty power, wealth and influence to direct, if not dictate, the course of lower and higher education, government pensions and health care, and the effective delivery of law enforcement—all without holding a publicly elected office, or even an official position in the Democratic party. (He stepped down as Camden County chairman in 1993.)

Cherry Hill, for instance, happens to like its current Cherry Hill-run police force just fine and has no desire to cede its management to Camden County. But just the same, its leaders found themselves engaged in an odd wrestling match with a “political leader” who can’t be voted out of office and therefore can’t be stopped. They declined a county takeover, for the time being. But every observer believes the subject will rise again and again till—whup! whup!—Norcross wins.

Is this democracy?

It’s a question I asked pretty much all my interview subjects for this story, and the answers ranged from an emphatic “Of course not!” to a meandering “Ye-es” to a grossly realistic “It’s the only democracy we have.”

Some names of the wounded have surfaced over the years. Mark Lohbauer, a Jersey businessman and Republican, has said that 11 years after he ran against one of Norcross’s candidates for county freeholder in the ’90s, Norcross made him pay. Then a planner with the Schools Construction Corporation, a state agency in charge of building schools in low-income neighborhoods, Lohbauer lost his job in October 2002 when he says the CEO told him he had to let him go from the non-politically appointed job. “I like you,” he said. “I want to keep you. But [Governor McGreevey’s office] told me George Norcross wants you gone.”

Today, Norcross adamantly denies the accusation, adding he doesn’t even know Lohbauer. The governor’s office and the CEO denied it, too. The problem is that—true or not—the Lohbauer story, like the pussy story and the water bottle story, sounds just like George Norcross. And the reason I can write that, with authority, is because we can all log onto the Internet, anytime, and hear him for ourselves. In 2000-2001, as part of a corruption investigation, George Norcross III was recorded in conversation with a Palmyra councilman, John Gural Jr., who claimed he was being pressured to fire a political enemy of Norcross, city solicitor Ted Rosenberg.

The Palmyra Tapes, as they are known, are now legendary in South Jersey political circles, capturing George Norcross III in a full-throated political bull roar:

“Rosenberg is history and he is done and anything I can do to crush his ass, I wanna do cause I think he’s just a, just an evil fuck. … ”

In another instance, Norcross talks about making a political opponent he can’t crush a judge, just to get him out of the way: “Make him a fucking judge, and get rid of him! … John Harrington is going to become a judge.” (John Harrington, by the way, became a judge.)

He orders another associate not to fraternize with an enemy: “Finally one day I sat him down … and said, ‘Herb, don’t fuck with me on this one … ’cause I’ll tell you if you ever do that and I catch you one more time doing it, you’re gonna get your fucking balls cut off.’”

He talks about urging a committeeman to hire a politically connected firm as township engineer: “ … [W]e said to Harry, ‘Wait a second, JCA was going to be the engineer of record. I don’t care about your fucking review process.’”

He brags of his political accomplishments: “No one will ever, ever again, not include or look down or double-cross South Jersey. Never again will that happen. Because they know we put up the gun and we pulled the trigger and we blew their brains out.” And he boasts about his hold on the governor’s office: “I’m not going to tell you this to insult you, but in the end the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me. Not because they like me, but because they have no choice.”

The investigation languished for years before the state Attorney General’s office effectively punted, asking in 2005 for then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie to review the case. Christie assigned two veteran prosecutors to the task before declining to issue any indictments. The case was so controversial that Christie took the highly unusual step of writing a public letter explaining his position: that the investigation had been mishandled before it ever reached his desk.

Norcross, who says he is “embarrassed” by his language but committed no “illegality,” emerged from the entire stressful affair without any criminal charges, yet still operating under a kind of moral cloud. Why? Well, because even if he committed no crime, his behavior was, not to mince words, frightening, even disgusting. In sum, the Palmyra Tapes make for a kind of holy shit! experience, clueing us in to the fact that if the smaller and weaker among us try to engage in running our borough, our town, our city, some really powerful guy like George Norcross III might chop off our balls.

What is so remarkable is that up close, the man behind all this drama is charismatic, warm, funny, a snazzy dresser, the kind of man you’d like to drink a beer with, the kind of leader you’d follow to hell, profane, volatile and suddenly talking.

At 57, George Norcross III is in impressive shape, with a trim gut and the sleek build of a man who keeps up regular tennis and golf matches. For our first meeting, at Cooper University Hospital, where he is chairman of the board, he dressed in a deep blue suit and French cuffs, his head topped by an avalanche of thick white hair.

I had been warned, by a half-dozen reporters, that Norcross would limit access and insist most of the conversation be kept private. But our two meetings encompassed 10 hours, most of it on the record.

“This is like therapy,” he said at one point, before clarifying that he’s never been in therapy.

Where to begin? Well, Norcross maintains that he is less involved in politics than he used to be. And he denies the existence of the much-ballyhooed “Democratic machine.” In terms of his public history, these disavowals have always seemed the most disingenuous aspect of Norcross’s back pages, since his operation appears to hold great influence over government jobs, contracts and political fund-raising. And what is that, if not an old-school Tammany Hall-style political machine?

In person, however, Norcross holds his ground. “The massive number of government jobs and contracts that used to exist just don’t anymore,” he says. “What we have here, and I say ‘we’ because it’s not just me, is a sophisticated apparatus that … achieves a result.”

A machine performs a prescribed function. The “apparatus” Norcross speaks of adapts to win. The image he conjures is of a political Transformer: It’s a car! It plants lawn signs! It’s a kick-ass purple robot!

The Norcross apparatus, as he describes it, also seems a valid tool to use, whether the goal is winning a race or running a newspaper. And the first thing it allows him to do is climb over his own biases. “We all think we know,” he says. “But until we do the research, we don’t know.”

He pores over the relevant data and, like a military commander, plots out a campaign that will bring victory. It happened in the early ’80s when he won his first big insurance contract, at the Garden State Park race track. He came in better prepared, familiar with every layer of coverage necessary for an idiosyncratic industry comprised of horses, riders and grandstands. But the particular subject is never important. In talking about his career, for instance, he betrays no passion for the industry that provided his wealth.

What engages Norcross is besting a challenge with an apparatus that produces a desired result. He could work in politics, insurance, bomb building, or the construction of a better mousetrap, and he’d enjoy the same electric charge emanating from the same place. “Clearly,” he says, “I like challenges … to a kind of extreme degree.”

The words indicate his meaning. But his body language conveys his feeling: His butt shifts suddenly in his seat. A crooked smile shades his face pink. His eyebrows twist with real curiosity, and his eyes begin casting around, wildly alight, as if the answer to the Riddle of Him might be written on one of the walls in this Cooper University Hospital conference room. In short, it seems Norcross still cannot fully process just why he wants what he wants. But he knows his apparatus is always geared up to produce the result.

One would think there might be great joy in this life, coptering over the common man to make millions; telling the governor what you want and knowing he’ll pay attention; building a new cancer center and erecting a prestigious new medical school—the first in New Jersey in 35 years—in Camden, the land he feels bound to by blood, the land that needs a champion like him. And there is: Norcross grins about as much as you’d expect from a fabulously wealthy, healthy man. But he also grimaces. He is not happy that he has been, as he puts it, “caricatured” as a bad guy. He is, however, resigned to this fate.

“Look,” he says. “In this lifetime, I can’t win. That’s the reality. I just can’t win.”

His image, for too many people, is set.

“My biggest mistake was allowing myself to be defined and branded in the ’90s,” he continues. “I stayed in the background because I thought that’s what political bosses did. And I got portrayed, you know, as the guy with the cigar and the horns.”

Norcross’s critics believe he’s not difficult to understand. “It’s all about power,” says John Williamson, president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police. “Wherever he can get it, he wants more.”

But the truth is more nuanced. The wonder Norcross conveys at his own zeal for confronting obstacles suggests that his restless journeying between political, business and social challenges isn’t something he understands or perhaps even controls. On the Palmyra Tapes, between venomous howls, he sounds compelled—a man overwhelmed by his own pace; “I’m up at four o’clock in the morning to go to North Jersey to attend meetings,” he says on the tapes. “Plus this company, plus whatever else I’m doing, and you know I’m nuts, I’m gonna have a heart attack.”

Behind all this striving, Norcross has also maintained a network of admirers. Former Inquirer reporter and current ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio, who plays tennis with Norcross, still gratefully remembers how his friend responded when Paolantonio’s daughter was admitted to Cooper in 2005 with a subdural hematoma. Norcross not only made calls about the daughter’s treatment; he showed up at 5 a.m. the morning after the operation to visit the Paolantonios in the intensive care unit.

“I think George is wrong when he says he can’t win,” says Paolantonio. “I think he can win. And he does win. I understand, as a reporter, why the Palmyra Tapes incident has to be part of the George Norcross narrative. But it does not define who he is.”

Norcross’s allies cite his intense loyalty. And they say his primary motivation isn’t power, but his love for his father, which they describe as moving in its sincerity and unusual in its depth. “I think if you know George and you spend time around him,” says one longtime friend, attorney Arthur Makadon, “it’s obvious that he’s just a man who is looking over his shoulder.”

George Norcross Jr., whom admirers called “Big George” and “Chief,” was a longtime AFL-CIO president. Through the ’60s and ’70s, he made a practice of bringing “Young George” to meet New Jersey governors, senators, congressional leaders and business people. Outfitted in a suit and bow tie, Young George sat quietly in meeting spaces all over New Jersey. “Don’t say anything,” his father told him. “You can learn just by observing.”

Afterward, on the way home, Young George would pepper his dad with questions. And the Chief revealed the meanings behind veiled words and silences. The education ruined Young George for college. Norcross remembers sitting in a political science course at Rutgers-Camden, a 19-year-old making mental note of his professor’s ignorance. “Everything he was saying was just … wrong,” he recalls. “He knew less about how politics is actually practiced than I did.”

So Young George dropped out and found his way, ultimately making more money, in the insurance industry, and garnering more power, in politics, than the Chief ever even sought. As the years passed, Norcross sometimes joked that he was different enough from his dad—fierce and ambitious, where the Chief was gentle and content; feared, where his dad was beloved—that he wondered if he had been adopted or left on the doorstep. “I am an aggressive Type-A-on-steroids personality,” he says. “I regretfully do not have my father’s personality.”

His dad knew success. He was a labor leader and served as a trustee of Cooper University Hospital. But as his career neared its end, in the late ’80s, the entire South Jersey region still operated as a kind of beggar in relation to the north. So the softer Chief also knew defeat: When the governor nominated him for appointment to the New Jersey Racing Commission, a Republican senator named Lee Laskin blocked him. When he received the support of governor Brendan Byrne in 1975 for the concept of a med school at Cooper, the Republican legislators of North Jersey made sure nothing got built. The Chief died, in 1998, with that promise unfulfilled.

Ascending to the chairmanship of the Camden County Democratic Committee at the tender age of 31, Young George, a high-school soccer and basketball player, brought the jock-ready jargon and just-win mentality of the locker room to state politics. He called his closest supporters the “Can Do Club” and lived by high-achiever mantras like “Second Place Is First Loser.” In a pivotal 1991 election, he worked with TV adman Neil Oxman and paid for $400,000 in commercial spots to dethrone Laskin, an unheard-of move in a state election. “At the time,” recalls Norcross, “four hundred grand was like $4 million.”

For the next 20 years, Norcross focused on the battlefield of New Jersey politics, to the point that he is now said to “own” South Jersey. The Camden County Democratic party has ratcheted down its fund-raising in recent years—incumbents don’t need as much money—but still ranks fourth among all the counties in the state, and when he wants a race badly enough, he flattens opponents under the heft of cash. He raised $2 million, for instance, for the 2003 state senate race that installed unknown challenger Fred Madden over incumbent George Geist. It was the most expensive senate race in the history of New Jersey, which raises a question: Is this d­emocracy—or an auction?

Jay Lassiter, a longtime Democrat in Camden County who’s worked on campaigns for such Norcross-backed candidates as John Adler and Rob Andrews, calls the matter “debatable,” then goes on to count the ways in which Norcross’s critics fail to appreciate his more visionary qualities.

“His candidates do bring a certain level of competence,” he says. “And the stands they take on the issues reflect the values of any true blue-dog Democrat.”

It’s a deep irony that Norcross, so often singled out for criticism in the media, routinely produces candidates who win newspaper endorsements from the Inquirer and Courier-Post. And even his nepotism hasn’t embarrassed him. He cleared the way for his brother, Donald Norcross, to get a state senate seat in 2010 when then-senator Dana Redd was elected Camden’s mayor, but Donald has since earned respect and an Inquirer endorsement.

The problem, then, isn’t that George Norcross is incompetent. He’s not. The issue is that he simply holds too much power for any one man, a state of affairs that South Jersey Dems experience intimately, always aware of who’s sipping from the trough. “I am not in the Norcross bubble,” says Jay Lassiter. “But a lot of people I care about are, so in deference to them, I wouldn’t want to say anything negative. And that said, if George Norcross came at me with some money, to be part of another campaign, I’d do it, gratefully. … For God’s sake, buy me! I’m not that expensive!”

The debate, at least in this instance, is over. This is an auction. And Norcross plays an enviable role as both the highest bidder and the guy who reaps the greatest proceeds. He’s long been criticized for doing insurance business with many of the governments with which he has ties as a political leader. But his power seems to yield various forms of return.

Famously, during the trial of state senator Wayne Bryant, we learned that the State of New Jersey had been doling out what government officials dubbed “Norcross Grants.” These were discretionary funds to be given to worthy causes. Norcross said that he received a phone call in 2004 from then-governor Richard Codey telling him that he—George Norcross III, a private insurance executive—could steer $500,000 in public money any way he saw fit. Norcross chose Pennsauken High School, his alma mater, and the private Lawrenceville School that his daughter Lexie attended.

Norcross has also benefited from his connections to the Delaware River Port Authority. When DRPA issued its final disbursements in 2011, Cooper University Hospital received $6 million. The money raised some eyebrows. Indeed, DRPA’s purported purpose was to promote transportation throughout the region, and Cooper was the only hospital ever to receive money from DRPA, the vice chair of which was—go figure—Jeffrey Nash, a longtime Norcross ally.

In another DRPA-related transaction, Norcross’s insurance firm received $410,000—not for actually doing the authority’s insurance work, but for referring that business to another insurance firm, Willis of New Jersey. While a report last year from the New Jersey comptroller was critical of that arrangement, it also noted that there was technically nothing unlawful about it, a point Norcross reiterates when I bring it up. “Look,” he says, “the report itself says nothing happened that was illegal.”

Jennifer Beck, a Republican legislator from Monmouth County, has since proposed a bill to plug up this hole in the public trough. But a year later, her fix continues to languish in a committee chaired by Nia Gill, an Essex County Democrat who is—again, go figure—allied with Norcross’s Southern Jersey crew.

Norcross’s critics remain fixated on these sorts of stories. But there is a larger portrait here—of the political operator as artist, and the artist as an aging, more reflective man. “Things have evolved,” says Norcross. “And … I’m getting older now. It’s only natural to wonder when my number will come up.”

In other words, as the finish line looms in the distance, Norcross has tuned his apparatus to securing a legacy—and the result is his broadest, most civic-minded set of aims yet. Is this altruism? Or self-interest? The best answer might be both: In fortifying Cooper University Hospital, Norcross ensures some vibrant legacy for his family. But to be certain Cooper will succeed, he must consider the health of the city as a whole.

And so Norcross has turned his sights on all of Camden, America’s poorest city. “We’ve got to make it safer here,” he says, “and we’ve got to improve the quality of education, or no one will move here and anyone who achieves any measure of success won’t stay.”

The Camden Norcross seeks to create is both modernized and tech-savvy. Cooper’s medical school yields prestige and a much-needed influx of youth and smarts. His promotion of a biomedical research facility and a closer allegiance between Rutgers and Rowan should yield greater academic status and potentially foster future economic spin-offs. The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a five-school, 2,800-student behemoth to be built on land near Cooper, might “stabilize the children and families of an entire neighborhood,” Norcross says. And reframing the Camden city police as a county-led force is, he says, designed to save money and free up budgetary room to put more officers on the street.

But can the guy with “the cigar and the horns” really save a city, or can he only serve himself? “Look,” says Ali Sloan El, a longtime city activist, “George is for George.”

By this theory, the land now set aside for the KIPP Cooper charter might never house a school at all—and instead wind up serving as land on which Cooper University Hospital can expand. And the police force—which has at least temporarily waived the civil-service exam process in order to staff up—will become a giant patronage mill, churning out government jobs for good little Camden County Democrats.

Norcross rejects such talk as “wild conspiracy theories.” But here’s the rub: Camden residents have no power with which to reject him. And yet there he is—influencing even the direction of their police force.

No city, let alone one with Camden’s crime problems, has ever replaced half its force with such speed before. So the risk is simple overreach.

“Nothing he does,” says historian Howard Gillette, “is all bad. He is a smart, competent man. But what’s extraordinary about him is that he has all this wealth, and this power, and this prestige, and there is no effective counterweight to him. That’s, understandably, a concern.”

“A few years ago,” says Neil Oxman, the adman with whom Norcross has continued to work, “George told me there are only two things he still wants in life: to play at the Augusta National golf course, and to have lunch with his father.” Oxman, who moonlights as a caddie for Tom Watson, got him on the Augusta golf course. “But I can’t do anything about that lunch.”

The Chief suffered a stroke in 1996, severely damaging his short-term memory, so Norcross isn’t sure if he ever understood just how successful his son had grown in business. The Chief also never saw the med school he’d pursued finally come into being.

I ask Norcross what he’d say if he could have lunch with his father.

“I heard from some people, after he died, that he had been concerned about me,” he says, “and whether or not I was going to be successful.”

Norcross considers all his words, slowly, then says: “I’d just want him to know that everything worked out all right.”

The new investor group in charge of the city’s largest, most prestigious media property came in saying all the right things. That group, including Norcross, Gerry Lenfest, developer Bill Hankowsky and executive Lew Katz, described themselves as investing “patient capital,” and suggested they would take their time trying to heal a faltering operation out of a sense of civic duty.

A year later, however, their actions seem to belie those words. What they really saw was a business opportunity—and in Norcross’s case, one of those much-beloved challenges.

During our second interview, Norcross seems perhaps more at ease, and excited, discussing his thoughts on his new property more than anything else. “Our position is that we essentially have three products to sell,” he says. “Philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News. And the audience for these three products is very different.”

As a result, the new owners want to establish their three products as separate entities. The Inquirer will focus on “local, local, local news,” as Norcross describes it, along with “investigative reporting and sports coverage” around the region. The Daily News will keep to its city focus. Both papers will be tucked behind pay walls, on their own websites. But philly.com will remain free while being recast as a kind of regional Huffington Post.

The same dynamic is in play at boston.com, which publishes a selection of material, for free, from the Boston Globe’s pay site, which went live in September 2011. If that’s the model, and publisher Bob Hall says it’s very similar, it isn’t encouraging. To date, the Globe online edition has only garnered around 28,000 digital subscribers. “If I didn’t think we have a real opportunity to make these publications financially healthy, I wouldn’t be involved,” says Norcross. “The fact that it might be hard is just … a part of what interests me.”

Thus far, Norcross seems to be setting the new ownership’s tone. The political bruiser who took Lee Laskin’s seat with a concentrated TV advertising blitz has linked up with Oxman again to produce ads reintroducing the Inquirer and Daily News. He also seems to have steered the company’s relationship with its new employees. First, he advised Ross in a pair of meetings that the company would be seeking contract concessions—and the elimination of seniority as a consideration during layoffs. Then he removed himself from further contact.

Instead, Lenfest took part—his comments undercutting any claims the new owners initially made about serving as “patient capital.” “This is not a charitable venture for me,” Lenfest told the Guild’s executive board, including Bill Ross. “If we do not get the concessions we need, we will liquidate the company in a week.”

The tough line has gotten the Guild’s attention. To start with, it agreed to begin contract negotiations several months before the previous deal was slated to expire. In those negotiations, the Guild managed to preserve seniority for its members, but offered up a separate concession that may prove even more important. For many decades, the Guild has refused to agree to any sort of formal employee-review. The new deal, however, allows the new owners to develop such a process, with performance standards set at its “sole discretion.” If an employee doesn’t measure up, he or she can be fired.

Bill Ross vows to fight in court if the owners begin using the provision unfairly, but Norcross seems unlikely to stick around for any legal tussles. His words hint at the divisive final solution suggested by Gerry Lenfest: “I’ll tell you this,” he says, in his office at Conner Strong. “We have no intention of fighting with unions. If we can’t get what we need to make this operation successful, we will just walk away.”

A framed, enlarged copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album cover looming on the wall over his shoulder, Governor Chris Christie shakes my hand and sits down in his Trenton office to talk about the only real rival to his power in the state of New Jersey: George Norcross.

In many ways, this should be a triumphant interview for Norcross, in which Christie, the North Jersey Republican, arguably the most popular politician in the United States of America, talks up the civic merits and vision of his unlikely Democratic ally to the south. And for a time, it is just that.

“This is a guy who has a very fertile mind,” Christie says of Norcross, “and is always thinking about things. Whenever I meet with George, he’s got a list of things he wants to go through.”

Of late, the piece of paper Norcross carries into his meetings with the Governor displays a lot of items on which they agree: the radical new changes in the Camden police department, the regionalization of public safety services, the Rutgers-Rowan partnership, K-12 education reform, and tough stances on union pensions and benefits.

The role of a private business executive, in the year 2013, rarely if ever means such deep engagement and power in the realms of public policy. But Christie denies that any problem, any real threat to democracy, is associated with Norcross’s almost paternal role in South Jersey.

“I think,” says Christie, assessing Norcross’s power, “more times than not, George wins these arguments in South Jersey based on the merits. I’ve never seen George in a situation, you know, [say] ‘You’ll do this or else. … ’ And a lot of the stuff [he’s doing] is laudable.”

If “a lot” of the stuff is laudable, I wonder, is the Governor aware of something that isn’t?

“I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that hasn’t been laudable,” Christie replies. “But I’m sure there’s plenty of them over time. He’s been involved in some—some bare-knuckle politics. So I’m sure not all of it was, you know, charitably motivated.”

For students of Jersey politics, the elephant in the room, of course, is Christie’s role in the Palmyra investigation, and those notorious tapes of George Norcross practicing politics. I ask Christie to discuss the subject.

“I made it a practice not to talk about that kind of stuff from when I was U.S. Attorney, in terms of ‘shining any new light’ on things,” he replies. “I think if you want to know what my view of the investigation was, then read the letter I sent to the acting Attorney General.”

In that letter, addressed to the state Attorney General’s office, and ultimately disseminated to the media, Christie explained that he would be unable to prosecute Norcross because investigators bungled the case. They failed to obtain wiretaps on their principal subjects, including Norcross, and didn’t equip an informant with a wire at one key political function. Christie even wondered, in print, if the investigation had been purposefully undermined for political reasons.

Federal prosecutors, as a rule, don’t discuss their decision-making. So the New York Times covered the largely unprecedented event. “In a scathing letter,” reads a 2006 Times story, “Christopher J. Christie, the United States attorney for New Jersey, wrote that his office would be unable to bring charges against Mr. Norcross because lawyers for the state attorney general had mishandled their investigation before turning it over to his office in 2004.”

“Reviewing the letter again,” I say to Christie, “as I did this morning … you look like a guy lamenting the one that got away. Right? And one of the ones that got away there was George Norcross.”

The entire time I speak, Christie sits there nodding. Then he responds: “Well, listen, you know, you change roles. Um, I’m now—here I was the United States Attorney, a prosecutor, and I was doing my job as I saw it. And now I’m the governor. And now I’m a political leader, on top of being a governmental leader. And so certain things that I couldn’t do as a prosecutor, I can do now, and I’m really obligated to do, and certain things that I could do as a prosecutor I can’t do anymore. So, you know, your power is in some ways expanded and your power in some ways is limited, as the governor, as compared to being U.S. Attorney.”

When I relay Christie’s answer to Norcross, he contends that the response doesn’t bother him at all. “That’s fine,” he says.

Of course, what the letter said was only that there would be no prosecution, not that there was no crime. So Christie’s response strikes me as a bad one for Norcross—driving us back to his darkest public days. Seeking to influence the dispersal of contracts, to get an enemy fired as a form of political retribution? All Norcross can muster, by way of apology, is to say he remains “embarrassed” by his own foul language. “My wife and mother should have washed my mouth out with soap,” he says. “But there was no illegality, as was determined.”

He smooths his hair back. He shifts in his seat. The conversation about Palmyra goes on for several minutes, but we never get to anything new, and Norcross doesn’t see the need to say anything he hasn’t said already. “It was an embarrassing moment,” he says. “It was certainly my most embarrassing moment in the region.”

George Norcross welcomes me into his private office at Conner Strong & Bu­ckelew, his Marlton-based insurance firm. A table is laid out with fine china, silverware, fruit, raw vegetables and hummus. He takes me on a tour of the photographs lining the walls.

The images cover everything from his daughter Lexie’s graduation from NYU to family vacations, numerous political events, and old sepia-haunted photos of himself, as a boy, with his father. He spends several long minutes narrating the circumstances of each. His tone, at times, grows distant, as though the images on the wall have pushed him from the spot where he is standing to the moments they were taken.

The most moving, in terms of his own personal story, are the ones of him and his dad. In photo after photo, Young George g­azes with innocent eyes at some governor of New Jersey—Richard Hughes in 1966, Cahill in ’63, Meyner in ’62. His dad stands there, beaming, and Young George is learning that the hand of a state governor is accessible to him. The natural question, given how open he’s been, is if he might let me borrow and scan some of these photos to publish as part of the story. “No,” he says.

“Really?”

“Really,” he replies. “They’re off the record. This is all off the record.”

“Why?” I ask. He maintains a steady stream of unrelated patter, clearly sending me the signal to move on. But I don’t. This tour of his past, of photos capturing events we had discussed on the record, is to be put off the record?

“Yes,” he says again.

The moment strikes me as telling. And in the coming days, I decided to write about this exchange. For one thing, by the rules of journalism, a source can’t retroactively put quotes or a scene off the record. He needs to request such an arrangement before speaking with a reporter—and Norcross hadn’t. But I didn’t want to write about this in order to prove any point about journalistic rules. I wanted to convey this scene because of what I thought the moment suggested—that on some level, he needed to reach out and exercise control. He needed to express his power. He needed, in spite of feeling that he had been wrongly defined over the years, to stay, well, as unknown as possible. And as a consequence, he tried to wipe away even these photos that bring some sense of duty and romance to his story—that soften his sometimes brutal image.

The overall effect, not just of this episode but of spending 10 hours with George Norcross III, is that he is asking to be seen in the best possible light without ever really emerging from the shadows. And so, in the end, it might not matter how many medical schools he builds or charter schools he founds or media companies he sells or saves. Because what we really need from him is something deeper and more intimate than all these things.

We need him to step out. We need him to apologize—to openly acknowledge that, crime or no crime, he is guilty. He has done wrong. He has lorded over—whup! whup! whup!—and undermined the democratic process of an entire region.

But the best Norcross can muster is to say he is embarrassed he swore. For that reason, he will likely go on feeling that he can’t win.

Not in this lifetime.

Because without that apology—without him letting go of some of his power—this region’s relationship with him will remain tainted by an unquenched desire: to see George Norcross III climb onstage, stand before a podium, and take a deep and holy breath. To see George Norcross III hang his head—flashbulbs popping—and assume the position.

Protesters Call for Removal of Camden School District Superintendant

download (3)

By Carly Q. Romalino

CAMDEN The Camden School District’s superintendent should resign, local control of the district must be restored, and Renaissance schools must not be expanded, city activists demanded Tuesday.

Save Camden Public Schools interrupted a portion of the New Jersey School Choice Education Reform Alliance conference to deliver the demands to state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, Democratic power broker and Cooper Hospital Chairman George Norcross, and New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe.

“We mean business about our schools,” Save Camden Public Schools founder Gary Frazier told Gannett New Jersey at a small protest of about 35 outside the Camden County College conference center on Cooper Street.

“When is somebody going to do something about it?”

Frazier’s group — supported by the New Jersey Education Association and the Camden Education Association — started four years ago, growing to 400 active members, he said. Its Facebook community has garnered 1,417 “likes.”

“Renaissance schools are not for the city of Camden,” said Robert Cabanas, of Save Camden Public Schools’ counterpart in Newark, a state-run district facing issues similar to the South Jersey city.

Camden’s first newly-built Renaissance school — KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy — opened in September. It’s the first of three new K-8 Renaissance schools to open in the city in the next several years. The new batch is among the district’s seven Renaissance schools.

The $41 million KIPP school is overenrolled, with a waiting list of 360 kids, the academy’s director told Gannett New Jersey earlier this month.

Protesters believe education funds get routed to Renaissance and charter schools and around other schools in the district, Frazier said.

Rouhanifard said in his conference address Tuesday Renaissance schools receive less funding than traditional public schools.

(Story continues below image)

Save Camden Schools member Kyisha Colvin, a Camden mother of two, marched with 30 others to oppose charter schools in the city. She took her daughters — 15 and 8 — out of charter schools last year, saying her youngest showed more success at Yorkship Family School than at Freedom Prep Charter School.

She said she believes academic success in Renaissance schools won’t be better.

“We have some really promising early signs of (students) succeeding academically,” Rouhanifard rebutted.

The superintendent — who has met with Frazier and other members of Save Camden Public Schools — said he doesn’t believe “their voices represent the majority of the voices in Camden.”

However, Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2013, sees a return to local control of school districts.

“Camden’s fight is very significant for Newark because we’re all state-controlled communities,” Cabanas said. Newark’s school district has been state-controlled for more than two decades.

“We want community schools and a democratically elected school board.”

It won’t take 20 years, but it won’t be immediate, Rouhanifard said.

“To demand local control is to completely ignore history,” Rouhanifard said, reminding them of “adult-driven” school district scandals and a district that “did very little for students.”

“What’s important is to stabilize the school district, leave it in a better place. I think it can be accomplished sooner than later.”

As for Rouhanifard’s resignation, that’s not happening.

“I have no plans to go anywhere, and I will always respect the dialogue,” he said.

Carly Q. Romalino: (856) 486-2476; cromalino@gannettnj.com