A New Jersey Democratic power broker pleads not guilty to state racketeering charges

Jul 9, 2024, 9:55 AM

FILE - George Norcross, New Jersey businessman, is seen, Aug. 6, 2019, in Philadelphia. Norcross an...

FILE - George Norcross, New Jersey businessman, is seen, Aug. 6, 2019, in Philadelphia. Norcross and co-defendants in a criminal racketeering case brough by the state attorney general pleaded not guilty in state court Tuesday, July 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey Democratic power broker charged with racketeering by the state attorney general pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges he threatened people whose properties he sought to take over and orchestrated tax incentive legislation to benefit organizations he controlled.

George E. Norcross III and four other co-defendants appeared in state Superior Court in Mercer County to enter their pleas in response to Attorney General Matt Platkin’s criminal charges unsealed last month. They all pleaded not guilty.

“My client emphatically states that he is not guilty,” Norcoss’ attorney Michael Critchley told Judge Peter Warshaw.

A sixth co-defendant sent a letter to the judge saying his lawyer is currently involved in another trial and hasn’t entered a plea yet, Warshaw said.

The charges, brought by a Democratic attorney general, against a longtime influential Democrat put the state’s dominant political party under scrutiny in an election year and as the state’s senior U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez is on trial in New York on unrelated federal bribery charges.

In a sign of how contentious the trial could be, the prosecutors and defense attorneys went back and forth Tuesday over nearly 14,000 pages of documents the state has yet to turn over to the defendants as required under the rules. The attorney general’s office sought to subject those documents to an order barring their distribution to third parties, like the news media, while the defense argued there shouldn’t be any such order.

The judge pushed the parties to agree to a temporary order barring the release of those records through Sept. 9 while the parties sort out what should be kept from third parties and what could be passed along.

“You can only imagine my enthusiasm for having to serve as a referee for what if any of this discovery should be subjected to a protective order,” Warshaw said.

Among the items prosecutors have already mentioned in the indictment are recordings, including a profanity-laden call of Nocross in which he tells a developer he’ll face “enormous consequences.” The person asks if Norcross is threatening him, and Norcross responds, “Absolutely,” according to the indictment.

Defense attorneys said Tuesday they planned to challenge the apparent wiretaps that led to those recordings.

Norcross is charged with operating a criminal enterprise over more than a decade, starting in 2012, in which he threatened property owners whose land he sought to acquire, used Camden, New Jersey, city government to acquire land and tailored legislation for tax incentives that benefited companies he controlled. Those allegations have been the subject of investigations for years, with Norcross denying any wrongdoing and praising the good his investments did for the economically hard-up city of Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

He’s said the prosecution was politically motivated and without merit. He angrily denounced the charges the day they were unsealed and sat in the front row at the attorney general’s news conference.

Norcross is a wealthy executive of an insurance firm and, until 2021, a Democratic National Committee member who also contributed financially to state and national Democrats. He’s since moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he had been listed before as a member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

He’s long been a boogeyman of many progressive New Jersey Democrats, who saw him as enriching himself while poorer residents languished.

A longtime kingmaker in southern New Jersey, Norcross often wielded influence through back channels. An old friend of the former Senate president and current gubernatorial candidate Steve Sweeney, Norcross played a key role in getting economic tax incentive legislation passed in 2013. His brothers are lobbyist and co-defendant Philip Norcross — who pleaded not guilty on Tuesday as well — and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, a former state legislator who is not charged.

In addition to the Norcross brothers pleading not guilty, attorney William M. Tambussi; Camden Community Partnership chief executive and former Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd; and development company executive John J. O’Donnell have pleaded not guilty.

Sidney R. Brown, chief executive of trucking and logistics company NFI, was not in court as his attorney is representing a co-defendant in the Menendez trial in New York, according to the judge.

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A New Jersey Democratic power broker pleads not guilty to state racketeering charges