Inside Ocean County Government

Pay-to-play, Transparency

Why Norcross Company’s Public Contracts Are Hidden From the Public

George Norcross

South Jersey Democratic Boss George Norcross’s company – Conner Strong & Buckelew – is probably getting money via public contracts from your town in some way, but campaign finance disclosure reports won’t tell you a word about it. Here’s why.

“How much money is George Norcross making from my town each year?”

That is a question that I have often been asked when discussing the pay-to-play problems that plague our state with readers. While there has been quite some discussion here about other major players, the laws of our state make it more difficult to ascertain the number and dollar value of contracts received by Norcross’ firm, Conner Strong & Buckelew, which deals in insurance and risk management consulting. Norcross, who needs no introduction, is the influential unelected South Jersey Democratic boss.

The fact of the matter is that if one wants to get a concrete figure on just how much the Norcross firm is making from local governments in New Jersey, it’s going to be far more difficult than other pay-to-play law firms, engineering firms & architects, among other professionals that are required to file more complete campaign finance disclosure statements due to their direct financial involvement in campaign activity.

Other firms have detailed accountings of payments received by way of public contracts published in publicly searchable reports on the website of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), the state government’s campaign finance watchdog agency that has statutory responsibility for regulating campaign spending and pay-to-play disclosure requirements within the state.

Under state law, the Commission requires certain types of professional firms that receive public contracts to file so called “business entity” disclosure forms detailing their political campaign contributions and any public contracts they receive from municipalities, counties, independent authorities or other taxpayer-funded bodies.

Through those forms, the public can gain an insight into which politically connected professionals are getting the most of their tax dollars and what towns are giving out the contracts. The influential firms and their partners largely comprise the de facto ruling elite of the Ocean County Republican establishment, among other groups and political players seeking to exert their influence on the political process, or in this case, even profit from it.

But unlike the other firms, George Norcross’ company, Conner Strong & Buckelew asserts – according to a box that was checked on a document filed with ELEC – that under the state Local Public Contracts Law, even though the firm has received lucrative contracts from public entities around the state, the company does not have to file the disclosure forms listing the public contracts that they receive and their dollar value, because it has not directly contributed the election funds of any candidate or committee, according to the form filed with state election officials earlier this year.

Here is the company’s latest ELEC filing, covering the year 2015:

While it may be true that the Norcross company has not directly bundled any campaigns, his support (or lack thereof) can make or break Democratic candidates, and even bring some Republicans to the bargaining table. 2013 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono is one such example, and she learned this the hard way when Norcross reportedly actively worked against his party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2013 due to a behind-the-scenes political deal brokered by the Democratic boss with Republican Governor Chris Christie.

George Gilmore

George Gilmore

LeRoy Jones

LeRoy Jones

With that in mind, deals between the South Jersey Democratic machine and the Ocean County Republican machine, despite the difference in political parties, are not uncommon.

While the Christie pact with Norcross may be the most glaring example, another came from Ocean County GOP chairman George Gilmore, who teamed up with Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones for their 1868 Public Affairs lobbying group. 1868’s accomplishments include lobbying in favor allowing a Walmart to be built near protected wetlands in Toms River, along with AshBritt debris removal services.

Joe Buckelew

Joe Buckelew

It should be noted that the “Buckelew” in the Democratic party powerbroker’s company, Conner Strong & Buckelew, is none other than former Ocean County Republican party boss Joseph Buckelew, a previous mayor of Lakewood Township who is also currently a politically appointed member of the New Jersey Sports & Exhibition Authority (NJSEA). Coincidentally, one of the other members serving on the NJSEA’s board along with Buckelew is none other than Mr. Jones.

The only practical way to find out what Norcross is getting, rather than having it all in a centralized state database, would be to manually comb through documents and file requests with each public entity in order to ascertain just how much Norcross is making.

One such example was from the resolutions of the Little Egg Harbor MUA. Earlier in November, the MUA signed a contract to renew their existing contract Conner Strong & Buckelew for risk management consulting services. In order to do so, they passed a resolution which included the contract and details about how the consulting arrangement would work.

Conner Strong & Buckelew’s contract stipulates that the township MUA is not actually directly paying for the company’s services, rather, the resolution is their consent to authorize payment to the company by the New Jersey Municipal Utilities Authorities Joint Insurance Fund, which is ultimately funded by assessments (similar to insurance premiums) paid by municipalities to provide coverage against liabilities for public entities.

The resolution awarding the contract was signed by Little Egg Harbor MUA Secretary Richard Crea, the husband of Republican LEHT Committeewoman-elect Barbara “Bobbi Jo” Crea, and is just one of many that were likely approved elsewhere.

In short, unlike other firms that benefit from public contracts, since the company of South Jersey Political Boss George Norcross itself has not directly contributed to any campaigns, they do not have to provide state officials – and by extension the public – a comprehensive listing of the dollar amount and public entities from which they receive the contracts, which ultimately makes it harder to track just how much the firm is receiving from taxpayers around the state.

Unless the state legislature chooses to toughen up the disclosure laws regarding public contracts, it’s not going to get easier to figure out all of the details surrounding Norcross’s contracts.

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