This article was produced in partnership with WNYC, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
TRENTON, N.J. — The influential New Jersey businessman at the center of an investigation into the state’s troubled tax-incentive program appeared on Monday before state legislators, rebuffing allegations of corruption and defending the hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives to him and his business partners.
Facing a panel of friendly lawmakers and a room of boisterous demonstrators, George E. Norcross III said the tax breaks had laid the groundwork for a “rapid and stunning renaissance” in Camden, the South Jersey city where he was born and where he built himself into the most powerful unelected figure in state politics.
The special committee of state senators was appointed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Norcross ally, to examine the $11 billion incentive program after months of revelations by news organizations and a task force appointed by the governor.
But at the hearing, the legislators had little in the way of tough questions for Norcross, who used the forum to assail critics as well as the news organizations and state investigators who have identified alleged irregularities in the nearly $300 million in tax breaks that went to firms in which Norcross had either an ownership stake or an oversight role.
“They need to stop it. The residents of Camden and New Jersey deserve better,” Norcross said. “Nothing would have occurred in Camden without these tax incentive programs.”
Dozens of demonstrators, all wearing stickers saying “Camden Makes, Norcross Takes,” packed the Statehouse hearing room and hectored Norcross as he arrived with an entourage that included union supporters from Camden County.
Many shouted “Down with King George” as Norcross made his way through throngs of reporters and onlookers. Others taunted Norcross with chants of “FBI, FBI, FBI,” referring to recent news of a federal probe into the Camden tax breaks.
In a spectacle of apparent confusion, Sue Altman, state director of the nonprofit New Jersey Working Families and a leader of the protests, was dragged from the hearing room by two state troopers. Sen. Robert Smith, the committee chairman, had ordered the police to remove a boisterous crew of pro-Norcross union members. But the troopers instead ejected Altman, who told reporters she was charged with disorderly conduct.
“Today, George Norcross and his political allies resorted to thuggery and violence to silence the voices of Camden residents and advocates seeking to make their voices heard on the ongoing incentives scandal,” Altman said after being issued a summons.
The confrontation with Altman delayed the hearing for about 15 minutes as police tried to reestablish order. Gov. Phil Murphy, speaking at an appearance later Monday, said the treatment of Altman was “outrageous and unacceptable” and called for the committee to issue her an apology.
The task force formed by Murphy in January found that the tax break program was poorly administered and rife with abuses. State oversight of the program was so lax that Trenton was unable to verify that jobs promised by employers were ever created.
The work of the task force has deepened divisions in Trenton, with Murphy and his allies demanding big changes in the incentive programs while Norcross, a prolific Democratic fundraiser, and his allies in the Legislature resist such changes.
In May, WNYC and ProPublica reported that about $1.1 billion of the $1.6 billion in tax incentives awarded to Camden firms went to companies owned by or closely connected to Norcros or to his brother Philip, a lawyer and lobbyist whose law firm helped write the tax break legislation.
The news organizations also found that Holtec International, a nuclear services firm based in Camden that received a $260 million tax break, made key omissions on its 2017 application for the incentives: The firm failed to tell the state of an ethical censure and 2010 disbarment from the Tennessee Valley Authority for contracting fraud.
In response to the story, the state has frozen Holtec’s tax award and may withdraw or reduce it, officials said.
Norcross, an unpaid member of the Holtec board and longtime friend of CEO Kris Singh, said in his testimony on Monday that the criticism was unfounded.
“He’s an American success story, a poor boy who came here from India,” Norcross said of Singh.
Norcross said Singh, like himself and other businessmen who used tax breaks to move their firms to Camden, invested hundreds of millions up front. He added that he and two business partners, who earlier this year moved into a new 18-story headquarters on the Camden waterfront, have spent about $300 million in investments in the city.
“We took a chance because of these incentives,” he said. “No one was going to invest in a city where you could buy sex, get murdered and buy drugs all in the same block. No one.”