Tag Archives: Palmyra Tapes

Power Broker Flexing Muscle, Caught on Tape

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APRIL 1, 2005

By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palmyra Tapes Case Timeline

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SUMMER 2001: Gural cooperates with state investigators, secretly tape-recording conversations with Norcross. Gural claims Norcross promised rewards for Gural if he voted to not reappoint Rosenberg. Norcross denies this.

NOVEMBER 2001: State investigators raid West Deptford municipal offices, searching for records of contracts awarded to JCA.

MARCH 2003: A former JCA employee — William Hampton Jr., the son of a founder of the company — pleads guilty to stealing $360,000 from the firm. Hampton took checks from municipalities and deposited them into his personal account.

DEC. 12, 2003: Three top executives at JCA agree to a plea bargain with the state Attorney General’s Office. The three — Mark Neisser, Henry Chudzinski and William Vukoder — say they will resign from the company and plead guilty to making illegal donations of more than $84,000 to West Deptford Democrats.

FEB. 17, 2004: West Deptford Democratic campaign treasurer Daniel Wilson is found guilty of tampering with public records and failing to report illegal campaign donations by JCA. Wilson is found innocent of charges he stole $28,000 in campaign funds.

MARCH 25, 2004: State Sen. Diane Allen, R-Edgewater Park, calls for an independent investigation of JCA by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.

MARCH 26, 2004: Superior Court Judge John Almeida throws out the plea bargain between JCA and Attorney General Peter Harvey. Almeida complains that JCA’s attorney, Kevin Marino, also personally represented Harvey in another ethics case. “The proposed plea agreement is not in the interest of justice,” Almeida said. “It is rejected.”

MARCH 31, 2004: Harvey fires back at Almeida, insisting the judge made “a rather serious error” in dismissing the three guilty pleas.

APRIL 2, 2004: Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, the state Republican chairman, calls for the U.S. attorney, a special prosecutor or a new attorney general to take over the criminal case against JCA.

MAY 1, 2004: The Schools Construction Corp. announces it intends to bar JCA and five of its top officers from working on the state’s school construction program for five years.

JUNE 8, 2004: Two months after rejecting a similar deal, Almeida agrees to a plea bargain involving the three former JCA executives. Almeida says circumstances have changed enough to convince him there was “no valid reason” to reject or delay a plea. Under terms of the deal, Neisser, Chudzinski and Vukoder will plead guilty to income tax evasion stemming from the campaign law infraction in West Deptford.

FEB. 25, 2005: Superior Court Assignment Judge John Sweeney orders that 330 hours of secret recordings of conversations between Gural and South Jersey power brokers, including Norcross, be released by the state within 15 days. Rosenberg, who filed a lawsuit to have the recordings released by state criminal investigators, said they will show “blatant examples of criminal behavior,” including Norcross attempting to bribe him. Norcross’ attorney, William Tambussi, said the recordings include just two conversations with his client and that state investigators have already found no evidence of wrongdoing.

APRIL 1, 2005: In the first series of released recordings, Norcross is heard denigrating a host of fellow Democrats, bragging about his influence with former Gov. James E. McGreevey and then-U.S. Sen. Jon S. Corzine, and describing the judiciary as a place to “get rid” of troublesome people. Tambussi says the tapes show Norcross to be a “tough fighter” for his party and South Jersey, and that “Mr. Gural and Mr. Rosenberg invented, fabricated and lied in all their wild accusations.”

JUNE 1, 2005: About 60 hours of new recordings are released. In one recording made in 2001, R. Louis Gallagher, then the chairman of the Burlington County Democratic Party, is heard telling Gural he should get a reward for agreeing to fire Rosenberg as borough solicitor at the behest of Norcross.

JUNE 27, 2005: A newly released tape shows that in July 2001, Norcross went to a high-ranking official in the Attorney General’s Office and asked that the investigation into allegations of political corruption in South Jersey be killed. “I’m not a thief. I’m not a crook. I can sleep at night,” Norcross told Anthony Zarrillo, then deputy director of the attorney general’s Division of Criminal Justice. “The only thing I have to worry about is a prosecutor or investigator who has an evil agenda.”

JULY 6, 2005: U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Christopher Christie says his office is “fully investigating” the Palmyra tapes case.

WEDNESDAY: Christie announces the federal government would not be able to prosecute Norcross even if he broke the law because the state Attorney General’s Office botched its investigation.

Informant Details Norcross Tape

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

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POSTED: March 11, 2005

At a critical juncture in a political-corruption probe four years ago, the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice made a decision: Put a body wire on then-Palmyra Councilman John Gural and send him into the Commerce Bank office of Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III.

Investigators already had taped a Norcross telephone call. Now they wanted Gural to meet him. For about 90 minutes as the hidden tape recorder rolled, Gural joined Norcross and Mark Neisser, president of the politically connected engineering firm that was the subject of the same probe.

What was said that day in January 2001 has remained locked up in an evidence vault in the Division of Criminal Justice’s office in Cherry Hill. But with the investigation now over, a state Superior Court judge has ordered that tape and dozens of others released – barring an expected appeal by the state attorney general.

“Norcross talked for almost an hour and half,” Gural said in a recent interview. “He talks about how he could influence judicial appointments in New Jersey. He talks about how he wanted to deal with some of his political opponents. And he talked about how he wanted to eliminate the ‘fringe elements’ in Burlington County Democratic politics.

“But most of all, he talked about how powerful he was and how much influence he had” with Jim McGreevey, the soon-to-be governor, Gural said.

A state bid to keep the tapes secret was rejected last week by Judge John A. Sweeney. He ordered them released to Ted Rosenberg, a whistle-blower who sued for their release.

The state promptly filed a motion to bar the release before a March 21 deadline but withdrew it late yesterday. Officials at the Attorney General’s Office said yesterday that they had the right to renew the motion but declined to discuss what legal action was planned.

In all, 330 hours of conversations are at issue. Some were in the offices of JCA Associates Inc., the Moorestown engineering company where Gural worked as a project manager. Others were with now-Superior Court Judge John Harrington; there are three tapes with Lou Gallagher Jr., then chairman of the Burlington County Democratic Party, and one with Alice Furia, the party’s vice chair.

Rosenberg and Gural have said the tapes – especially the one with Norcross – offer a rare inside look at power politics and could embarrass some political figures.

William Tambussi, attorney for Norcross, said that the tapes showed “absolutely no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing against anyone,” and that Gural and Rosenberg had political motives in pushing for their release.

“Rosenberg and Gural live in a fantasy world. This is all about politics and their political failures,” he said.

The meeting with Norcross was arranged through Neisser, then president of JCA. The company has since been absorbed by another engineering firm. Last year, Neisser pleaded guilty to minor tax charges in a deal related to the case.

At the time of the recordings, a political battle was being waged in Burlington County, and Rosenberg, the solicitor in Palmyra, was opposing Norcross.

According to Gural, Neisser told him that Norcross wanted Rosenberg ousted as the town’s attorney. If Gural agreed to that, the Democrats would reward him, he was told. If not, he would lose his job at JCA.

Incensed at what he perceived as a threat, Gural approached the state, which agreed to begin an investigation.

In early January, investigators equipped Gural with an F-BIRD (FBI Research and Development), a high-tech electronic listening device the size of a business card. Gural slipped the device in his shirt pocket and headed to Norcross’ office.

The meeting, Gural said, was held in a posh conference room at Commerce Bank’s corporate offices in Cherry Hill, overlooking a busy stretch of Route 70.

Norcross, dressed impeccably in a dark suit and white shirt, welcomed him and Neisser and immediately launched into a monologue, Gural said.

“He began talking to Neisser about the influence he was amassing with McGreevey and how he had been named the co-finance chairman for the gubernatorial campaign,” Gural said.

The conversation quickly turned to Rosenberg, who had sought the chairmanship of the Burlington County Democratic Party without Norcross’ blessing.

“He said he wanted to punish Rosenberg for his actions in defying him,” Gural said.

“He was trying to be as forceful as he could in getting me to toe the line. He wanted me, very clearly, to fire Rosenberg as the solicitor.”

The men disagreed about Harrington’s role in Burlington County politics.

Norcross supported him; Gural did not.

“Norcross said he understood that Harrington wasn’t the most popular person and that Harrington’s involvement in the county party was causing friction,” Gural said.

“Norcross said he was going to resolve that by working to make Harrington a judge.”

Gural said the conversation shifted to professional contracts.

“He asked me who the engineers were in Palmyra, and I told him Dick Alaimo. He snapped at Neisser, asking him, ‘How did that happen?’ ” Gural said. “To tell you the truth, he startled me.

“He discussed Commerce Insurance’s appointment in Palmyra as well, asking me if I was going to reappoint Commerce as the township’s insurance broker.

“I assured him we would,” Gural said. (The next year, Commerce lost the contract).

Gural, at the direction of the Division of Criminal Justice, then asked Norcross whether he could arrange to have him appointed to a post at the county Board of Elections, a part-time paid position.

“Norcross took out a piece of paper and wrote it down,” Gural said. “Then he put the paper in his pocket and nodded, leading me to believe he was going to look into it.

“The meeting itself went fairly well,” Gural said. “At the end, Norcross told Neisser to invite me to the next fund-raiser at the Tavistock County Club. Two days later, I went. I knew the tickets were pretty expensive.

“But they comped me.”

Contact staff writer Maureen Graham at 856-779-3802 or mgraham@phillynews.com.

IN PERSON: The Tale of the Tapes

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ON first impression, John Gural stocky and bespectacled — hardly strikes a visitor as a secret agent, partisan revolutionary or news-media star.Yet after wearing a hidden microphone for several months to capture the boasts and threats of one of the most powerful men in New Jersey, Mr. Gural — who today is part-time mayor of this blue-collar town of 7,100 in South Jersey — has become all of those things.

In retrospect, Mr. Gural says: ”This was like something out of a movie. I couldn’t believe it.”

So how did Mr. Gural (pronounced guh-RAL), a self-professed ”small-town guy” who lives with his wife and two children in the house where he grew up, find himself in the center of one of this year’s most dramatic stories?

The way Mr. Gural recalls it, the whole conflict was thrust upon him when his personal loyalties ran up against the murky nexus of business and politics in New Jersey, and the ramifications are certain to play out during the coming gubernatorial election and beyond. Already, Douglas Forrester, a leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, has put on radio spots featuring George E. Norcross III, the powerful but unelected Democratic boss from Camden County, bragging on tape about his access to Senator Jon S. Corzine, the presumptive Democratic candidate.

Sitting in his favorite corner seat in the dimly lighted Park Tavern in Palmyra one recent evening, the 45-year-old mayor hardly knew where to begin.

”It all started in February of ’99,” he said, prompting an indulgent smile from an eavesdropping bartender who had clearly heard it all before.

And so begins the tale of the tapes.

The highlight of the tape recordings — 330 hours worth that have collectively become known as ”the Palmyra tapes” — is probably the two hours or so of discussions between Mr. Gural and Mr. Norcross, who boasted of his influence with the state’s top office holders.

In his conversations with Mr. Gural, who at the time was a Palmyra councilman and project manager at an engineering firm, Mr. Norcross bragged about his access to powerful elected officials like Mr. Corzine and his ability to provide cushy jobs for allies and to wreck the livelihoods of adversaries.

But what would make Mr. Norcross flex his political muscles before the small-town city councilman?

To hear Mr. Gural tell it, the trouble started when he formed a friendship with Ted Rosenberg, Palmyra’s Democratic town solicitor.

When Mr. Gural agreed to publicly support Mr. Rosenberg for a local party chairmanship against the candidate backed by the Democratic county organization, he said he got an unexpected call at his workplace, an engineering company called JCA Associates that relied on municipal contracts for much of its business.

”My boss called me into his office, and he said, ‘Gural, it would be better for your future here if you didn’t go to that press conference,”’ Mr. Gural recalled between sips of black-and-tan. ”I loved working there. I didn’t know what to do. But I said, ‘You know what? I made a commitment to him and I’m not going anywhere.”’

Over the next few months, Mr. Rosenberg continued to butt heads with local party leaders, and Mr. Gural came under increasing pressure from within JCA to disavow his alliance with Mr. Rosenberg and, eventually, to use his position on the town council to oust him as town solicitor.

That, Mr. Gural said, is when he decided to take matters into his own hands, setting up a sort of amateur sting operation before a meeting with one of his bosses at JCA.

”I dusted off my Sony pocket recorder — the thing was like 11 years old, it was like a brick,” he said, making an unmistakable brick shape with his hands. ”I had a little bit of tape left.”

On that tape, Mr. Gural said, he recorded his boss telling him to fire Mr. Rosenberg because ”this is what George wants.”

Figuring he had captured a clear piece of evidence — of what, he was not sure — he called a friend who is a lawyer, and together they called State Attorney General David Samson’s office. Soon afterward, Mr. Gural said he was meeting with two state investigators in his lawyer’s office, where they listened to the recording he had made. The investigators’ reaction was swift.

”They say, ‘If you agree right now, you’re working as our agent,”’ said Mr. Gural.

From then on, Mr. Gural adopted a new routine: he would get wired up at home in the morning by agents from the attorney general’s office, go to work and then meet with the agents for an end-of-the-day debriefing.

”For my wife and kids, it just became part of the routine,” he said.

It was some routine for Mr. Gural, who grew up in Palmyra, the oldest of five children of a welder and a homemaker. Though he left Palmyra after high school to play soccer for the University of Delaware, he finished only one year of college before returning home. About a decade ago Mr. Gural decided to enter local politics, first getting elected to the town council, then mayor — a position that carries an annual salary of $2,100.

After capturing on tape what he described as an escalating series of threats to his job security if he did not fire Mr. Rosenberg — along with increasingly explicit acknowledgements that Mr. Norcross was putting pressure on company officials to get it done — the investigators decided that the best course of action would be for Mr. Gural to act as if he had finally caved in to the pressure.

”At that point, all they had were threats,” he said. The investigators were looking for a way to extend the investigation.

So Mr. Gural told his bosses at JCA — who did not know that he was taping his conversations with them or Mr. Norcross — that he would fire Mr. Rosenberg from his position as town solicitor.

It did not take long for his seeming favor to be returned.

”My boss came in and said, ‘Gural, think about what you want — you’ve been called up to the mountaintop.”’

The mountaintop, of course, was the meeting with Mr. Norcross — an executive at Commerce Bank and one of the most powerful men in New Jersey — during which Mr. Gural said he was offered help getting a lucrative job at the Burlington County Board of Elections.

Later that year, state investigators raided the offices of JCA Associates, seizing computers and documents. The entire yearlong investigation resulted in three officials from JCA pleading guilty to tax fraud and campaign-finance charges. Mr. Norcross was not charged with any wrongdoing.

For now, the fate of the bulk of the tapes remains unresolved. The state attorney general’s office released the two hours of conversations after Mr. Norcross — and acting Gov. Richard J. Codey — urged that they be released. But more than 300 hours of the tapes have not yet been made public pending a judge’s decision on a motion filed earlier this month to withhold them until they can be edited to protect details of wire-tapping techniques and innocent third parties.

After an uncomfortable few months in 2001 when Mr. Gural continued to go to work at JCA Associates, he left to take a job with a construction company in Vineland.

As for the people of Palmyra, he said that they were overwhelmingly supportive of what he had done, and in fact elected him mayor in 2003 and thanked him ”for standing up for them.”

Otherwise, Mr. Gural said, all the madness surrounding the tapes has not altered his life that much.

”I mean, I still bank at Commerce Bank,” he said. ”It’s convenient. What can I say?”

Photo: ”This was like something out of a movie,” said Mayor John Gural of Palmyra, a town of 7,100 in South Jersey. ”I couldn’t believe it.’

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