Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Norcross Comes Out Of The Shadows To Dispute "Hatchet Job"

By Ralph Cipriano
for BigTrial.net

He came out of the shadows where he usually operates, the "widely feared, fantastically wealthy, all-powerful" George Norcross.

The unelected and unaccountable political boss of South Jersey, who, according to Philadelphia magazine, showed up unannounced in Philadelphia on Primary Day last year as part of his secret campaign to take over our city.

And, just a year later, according to Philly mag, Norcross the "conqueror" -- a guy who may harbor an Alexander the Great complex -- is now "well entrenched" in Philadelphia's government and politics. His insurance company has gobbled up a bunch of local government contacts. And, even worse, Philly mag claims, Norcross meddled in the Philadelphia mayor's race by allegedly orchestrating a plot to import $725,0000 in union PAC money from New Jersey, for the benefit of Jim Kenney. Meanwhile, the magazine cautions, the rest of us should be worried about this rich and mysterious one-percenter who works in the dark, while "granting not a single on-the-record interview to a reporter."

That's how reporter Holly Otterbein describes George Norcross in the May issue of Philly mag, under the headline, "Norcrossing the Delaware/He's already conquered New Jersey. Now George Norcross is invading Philadelphia -- and the city's power crowd is too scared to talk about it."

That's kind of curious since the story goes on to quote former Governor Ed Rendell, Comcast senior executive VP David L. Cohen, Blue Cross CEO Dan Hilferty and Mayor Jim Kenney -- all certified members of the "city's power crowd" -- all talking on the record about George Norcross, who refused to talk to Philly mag.

But guess who's talking now? George Norcross. In an hour-long interview, the South Jersey boss had plenty to say to Big Trial about Philly mag's "hatchet job" that he claimed was filled with mistakes and inaccuracies.

As a public service during primary season, Big Trial will now moderate a debate between Patrick Kerkstra, the editor of Philly mag, and the all-powerful but previously silent George Norcross. Along the way, we'll be calling 'em as we see 'em, to provide instant analysis.


Philly mag Editor Kerkstra came out strong with a full-throated defense of his reporter.

"We stand by Holly's reporting 100 percent," Kerkstra wrote in an email. "I'm damn proud of this piece and the reporter who wrote it. Reporting and writing a story like this about George Norcross takes smarts and tenacity, but also guts," Kerstra said,  considering Norcross's past tussles with reporters.

"It's great that George Norcross spoke to you for an hour," Kerkstra said. "He declined our request for an interview. His spokesman declined to be interviewed, on the record or off. Many of Norcross's associates and allies declined to be interviewed as well."

Norcross similarly came out firing

"I'm not going to speak to a writer who has demonstrated an unprofessional, incompetent nature in their reporting," Norcross said about Otterbein. "She clearly showed a bias from her initial conversation" with Norcross spokesman Dan Fee. "The lady who wrote this article had reached a conclusion before she wrote her first sentence," Norcross said. "She did very little research."

FIRST DEBATE TOPIC -- As far as Norcross is concerned, the troubles start with the illustration Philly mag used for the story.

The magazine depicts Norcross as George Washington crossing the Delaware. In the boat, Old Glory is flying, and Norcross and his daughter, Lexie, are being rowed across the river by U.S. Congressman Bob Brady, and Mayor Kenney. Along for the ride are former Gov. Rendell and union boss "Johnny Doc" Dougherty. Meanwhile, seen splashing along helplessly in the waves beside the boat is Ed Coryell, the boss of the Philadelphia carpenters local, until his international threw him overboard.

In the Philly mag story, Norcross is depicted as crossing the Delaware, presumably to begin his invasion of Philadelphia. But as Norcross explained, "any sixth-grade history student" knows that when Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776, he was on his way to Trenton, to ambush the Hessians, not to invade Philadelphia.

In the view of Philly mag editor Kerkstra, Norcross is being too literal.

 "Did he [Norcross] actually take issue with the fact that Jim Kenney is not really an oarsman?"Kerksra asked.

Big Trial Scorecard: In terms of history and geography, Norcross may be right. But it's a nice illustration, so Big Trial is calling this one a tie.

Let's get to the journalism.

NEXT DEBATE TOPIC -- In the opening of the story, Philly mag explains how Norcross "slipped in through the back door" of Vie, a North Philadelphia restaurant, and had a brief conversation with Jim Kenney on the night he won the Democratic mayoral primary. The conversation lasted only three minutes, according to Philly mag, but it created a buzz among Philadelphia's power elite. Did the brief meeting signal that Norcross, the man who spent "30 years methodically taking over the state of New Jersey, was setting his sights on Philadelphia?" Yes, says Philly mag, because,  just a year later, Norcross is now "well entrenched" on this side of the Delaware in both Philly government and politics.

Norcross's story is that when he stopped by to see Kenney, it was on an impulse, not to launch an invasion. "I've known Jimmy for 20 years," Norcross said about the mayor. He explained that he and Hilferty, the CEO of Independence Blue Cross, were in town that night and "just decided to stop by and congratulate him [Kenney] and then we left."

"The story uses the anecdote of that three-minute meeting as an example of Norcross's stature and asserts that it got people talking about his role in Philly," Kerkstra explained. Norcross didn't have an appointment to see Kenney the night he won the primary, but it didn't matter. "The story makes a broad case that Norcross is flexing his muscle in the city," Kerkstra said.

Norcross is executive chairman of Conner, Strong and Buckelew, an insurance firm that opened a new office at Two Liberty Square in 2012. In recent years, the magazine reported, the insurance firm has "secured millions of dollars worth of contracts from government agencies in Philadelphia."

According to the magazine, those insurance contracts, which "have helped make him [Norcross] a millionaire many times over," include: a $300,000 contract with the city's Redevelopment Authority in 2011, extended to $310,000 in 2012; a $630,000 contract with the Philadelphia School district in 2012, extended to $500,000 in 2014; a $660,000 contract in 2014 with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

All told, the contracts cited by Philly mag amount to $2.4 million.

Norcross points out that all of those contracts were won through competitive public bidding, and were in place years before his 2015 meeting with Kenney. And the magazine's observation that just a year later, in 2016, Norcross was "well entrenched" in Philadelphia."

"He's right," Kerkstra said. "And the story is crystal clear on the fact that Norcross had dealings in the city before that meeting," Kerkstra said. "The actual years those contracts were awarded are included in the story. There's a line in the story that explicitly says when we think he made his big move into Philly: 'That moment came in 2012,'" when Norcross was part of a group of owners that bought The Philadelphia Inquirer. [More about that later.]

Norcross claimed the dollar amounts on the contracts quoted by Philadelphia magazine are incorrect, because they include money paid to minority contractors involved in the bids, a share that typically ranges between 25 and 30 percent. That means that rather than than reaping $2.4 million from the contracts, the insurance firm would have netted, at most, about $1.8 million over four years.

"The contract figures are accurate," Kerkstra said. "We reported the amounts of the contract that were awarded. The fact that [Conner, Strong & Buckelew] then paid some of the awarded contract money to its subcontractors does not change the amount that was awarded. Contracts are routinely reported in terms of the round sums authorized."

Norcross cites another factual discrepancy. The magazine talks about the 2012 opening of a new office at Two Liberty Square in 2012 for Norcross's insurance agency. But, "Conner, Strong & Buckelew has been entrenched in Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania for well over a decade," Norcross said. "We've had a presence in the city since the late 1990s."

Today, "We have 150 people hiding at Two Liberty Square," Norcross said. The firm previously maintained an office at Commerce Square.

Counters Kerstra: "The firm itself considers the November 2012 opening of its 'dual headquarters' in Philadelphia to be a milestone moment." The editor was referring to a publicity brochure issued by the firm that celebrated more than 50 years in business.

"We're a national firm doing business all over the country" in nearly all 50 states, Norcross said. "We're among the largest insurance brokerage firms in America. We do business in almost every one of the 50 states." The Philadelphia contracts the magazine cited amount to just a small part of the firm's business, Norcross said.

"No one from Philadelphia magazine bothered to fact check a single thing," Norcross complained.

But Kerkstra said, "Since George Norcross did not speak to us, we got no facts from him to check. Our information was carefully reported and checked from other authoritative sources."

"We declined an interview, but we never declined to answer questions," Fee said.

Big Trial Scorecard: Philly mag could have run the numbers for the insurance contracts past Norcross's representatives, and included the explanation about the decreased dollar amounts due to the minority subcontractors. But most readers won't care about the discrepancy. If Conner, Strong & Buckelew have been in Philadelphia since the late 1990s, as Norcross claims, that could have been noted in the story as well. Most readers won't care about that either, but this kind of stuff makes an old reporter nervous about sloppy work habits.

NEW DEBATE TOPIC -- The magazine claims that Norcross, a former owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, "lost control of the newspaper in 2014, after a nasty, deeply personal feud between the owners involving lovers, lawyers and daughters."

Norcross concedes he wanted to keep the papers, and was disappointed by the result of court-ordered auction. But he doesn't know how he could accurately be portrayed "as the loser in that transaction."

"I was a pretty substantial winner," Norcross said. He pointed to the dollar figures in the transaction, that a newspaper bought for $55 million in 2012 was sold for $88 million in 2014.

To be more specific, at the June 2014 auction, Lewis Katz and Gerry Lenfest bought out Norcross and his two partners, William P. Hankowsky and Joseph E. Buckelew.

Norcross and his two partners had previously invested $35 million in 2012; they sold out two years later for $41.7 million. So they made $6.7 million. Not many people make money selling newspapers.

At the time, Katz believed that Norcross was committed to keeping the newspaper at any cost. But when the bidding hit $88 million, Norcross surprised Katz and Lenfest by dropping out, leaving his adversaries to overpay.

To prove that point, the day after the auction, when Katz was asked about his plans for the newspapers, he responded, "I can't tell you what our plans are, because my plan yesterday was to go home with a big check."

Katz was subsequently killed in a plane crash. Since then, "Lenfest has plowed $120 million into that enterprise and donated it to a non profit," Norcross said. So how exactly did he lose that auction?

"He does not control the newspapers," Kerkstra said. "He wanted to continue to own them. 'Lost control' sits OK with me."

Big Trial Scorecard: It would have been easy to explain that although Norcross may have won on the bottom line, he did lose control of the newspaper.

NEW DEBATE TOPIC -- Norcross doesn't understand how Philly mag can write that he routinely stiffs reporters, usually works in the dark, and is "just as unaccountable to the media as he is to voters." And how he infiltrated Philadelphia's government and politics in recent years while "granting not a single on-the-record interview to a reporter."

"I've sat for extensive interviews," said Norcross, who cited a videotaped interview with the editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger, and an interview with the editorial board of the Inquirer.

"I've been interviewed frequently and regularly over the last 15 years," Norcross said. "It's another example of blatant incompetence; the editors were asleep at the wheel."

A Google search using the words "Norcross" and "interview" turns up: a 2012 interview with Marty Moss-Coane of WHYY about the merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University; a four hour interview with the Inquirer for a 2012 story headlined, Powerful medicine: How George Norcross used his political muscle to pump up once-ailing Cooper Hospital; and, most embarrassingly for Philly mag, two interviews with Steve Volk of Philly mag for a 2013 story headlined, "George Norcross: The Man Who Destroyed Democracy."

"Yep," Kerkstra replied, "The statement that he had granted 'not a single on-the-record interview with a reporter' is a clear factual error, one that I mistakenly made while editing as I cut to fit the article to length. We will run a correction in the next issue of the magazine and clarify the language for the online version of the story when it goes up."

Big Trial Scorecard: Philly Mag shoots itself in the foot on this one. How do you overlook two interviews with your own magazine? When you're going after a target as big as Norcross, you have to pitch a shutout. In the story, Philly mag also states that Norcross's daughter, Lexie, launched a new news website, phillyvoice.com, in 2014, when the website was launched in 2015. Again, no big deal but a mistake a fact-checker should have caught.

NEW DEBATE TOPIC -- In the Norcross piece, Philly Mag recounts "the story of how Norcross built himself into the most powerful man in New Jersey." It's a story that according to magazine, "begins with revenge."

"To make a long F-bomb filled-story short," the magazine recounts how Norcross asked former New Jersey state Senator Lee Laskin, a Republican, for a personal favor: to put Norcross's dad, an old union boss who loved to play the ponies, on the New Jersey Racing Commission.

Philly mag's account: "The answer was no. No way. The slight infuriated Norcross," who then, according to Philly mag, launched his long and successful 30-year campaign to wrest control of Camden County from the GOP.

But Philly mag left out the punch line of that story; what Laskin said that supposedly infuriated Norcross, and prompted him to seek revenge. According to a long New Yorker story about 2014 Chris Christie and politics in New Jersey, what Laskin said, as recounted by Norcross, was, "Fuck you and your father," and "all you corrupt Democrats."

"This is a point that Norcross could have made before publication, if he'd agreed to an interview," Kerkstra said. "And really, that's the larger point here. Norcross declined an interview and now he laments that his perspective is not included to the extent he would like it to have been. That's on him, not us."

Big Trial Scorecard: When did Philly mag ever care about dropping too many F-bombs in a story? Especially when the punchline to the Laskin story has been previously printed. Also, in another section of the Philly mag story, Otterbein colorfully recounts how Norcross was caught on tape years ago by a Palmyra councilman saying things like, "Herb, don't fuck with me on this one," because, "You're gonna get your fucking balls cut off."

Sorry, Patrick, but this one's on you. You should have printed the punchline that set Norcross off, especially if you're going to print other old stories that have Norcross cursing like a sailor.

FINAL DEBATE TOPIC -- Now we come to the crux of the Philly mag story: that Norcross has become "everyone's worst nightmare about super PACs" because he allegedly masterminded the funneling of $725,000 in New Jersey union money to Mayor Jim Kenney. So that Kenney could win his primary election with nifty TV ads designed by, as Philly mag put it, "Norcross's longtime adman Neil Oxman, who produced the pro-Kenney TV commercials funded with all that Super PAC cash."

According to Philly mag, the PAC money originated with the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress in Jersey. Then it was passed on to another PAC called the Turnout Project, which apparently skimmed $25,000 of the top. Then, the Turnout Project wrote a $725,000 check to a super PAC known as "Building a Better Pa. That's the "Johnny Doc" PAC led by Dougherty, the head of Electricians Local 98, which was also supporting Kenney for mayor.

"Norcross's fingerprints were all over the money," Philadelphia magazine declares, "He played the role of matchmaker." Since the demise of Ed Coryell, who was backing state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams for mayor, "Norcross' allies are now in charge of the city's carpenters," the magazine declared.

The magazine offers as proof of the plot, that Norcross has a friend who's a VP at the national carpenters union, another friend who's a honcho with the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, and a third friend who's the treasurer of the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress. That's in addition to Oxman, the longtime Norcross adman who got paid to produce the TV spots that helped Kenney win.

He may have a lot of friends, Norcross said, but there is "absolutely no proof" that he lined up the donations. To think "the carpenters did something because George Norcross orchestrated it" is "absurd," Norcross said.

Norcross said he met Coryell once in his life, at a Liberty Medal presentation ceremony. But he 's known Michelle Coryell, Ed's daughter, for the past 15 years, because she is chief of staff to Steve Sweeney, the president of the New Jersey state senate, and Norcross's longtime political ally.

Norcross said he had no advance word on the unceremonial dumping of Coryell, who, in February, suffered the indignity of having his local closed underneath him. Coryell led the Philadelphia carpenters local for 25 years. Until Douglas McCarron, general president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in Washington D.C., decided to close the Philly local and divide its members and assets among three regional councils in Pittsburgh, Edison, N.J., and Framingham, Mass.

If Coryell was a Teamster and it was the 1970s, they might have found his body stuffed in the trunk of a car. Instead, he's now a "consultant" who still gets paid by his union while he continues to avoid reporters.

Coryell's local was involved in a long, ugly battle at the Convention Center, where the carpenters behaved badly and then were locked out when they refused to sign a new customer-satisfaction agreement that was signed by all the other unions at the Convention Center.

The Philly carpenters responded by demonstrating at the Convention Center, and causing more problems there, which prompted the Convention Center to file a racketeering lawsuit against the carpenters. Local Democrats were also concerned about whether the carpenters local would picket the Democratic National Convention this July in Philadelphia.

Norcross said he doesn't tell the carpenters what to do. The decision to replace Coryell came down from the union's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It's not uncommon for an international union to step in and take "corrective action" for the "well-being of their members" when there is "adverse publicity" over an issue as big as the Convention Center, Norcross said. Especially, an issue that has become "the focal point of attention in a very negative way," Norcross said.

Norcross said he's spent his life helping to get Democrats elected to office. He thought Jim Kenney would make a good mayor. But like everybody else, Norcross said he heard about Coryell's demise from the media, and got no advance notice. He added that he wouldn't have done anything intentionally to hurt the father of Sweeney's top aide.

"We stand by our reporting," Kerkstra said. "The story explicitly says 'the carpenters likely had their own motives for donating so much cash to the elect-Kenney effort,' and then goes on to detail two possible motives. We stand by the assertion that Norcross played the role of deal-broker -- or at least, as we said in the piece, that was the assumption of 'the heavies in Philadelphia's political class.'"

But that's an assumption that may or not be true And none of those heavies are quoted in the Philly mag story as saying that Norcross arranged the deal.

What do the other participants in the alleged conspiracy have to say?

Johnny Doc didn't put much stock in the Philly mag story. "I didn't even bother reading it," he said, through his spokesperson, Frank Keel.

Neil Oxman said that the reporter, whom he respects, "was trying to connect dots in a way that were not connectable."

"We do a lot of elections a year," Oxman said. But he said he doesn't worry about "exactly where the money is coming from until the finance reports are filed."

Oxman said after a lifetime in politics, he knows that "No one from outside the union is going to tell the union what to do ever." Unions usually know who they want in office, Oxman said, and they're not going to let any "candidate or political operative" tell them what to do.

"They would tell you to go screw yourselves, especially with the building trades," Oxman said. "Those guys will punch you in the face."

The way Oxman remembers it, Norcross showed up in his office saying that some people had asked for his help in getting Anthony Hardy Williams elected mayor. This was early in the race when Lynne Abraham was leading the polls, and Kenney was a distant third.

Oxman said he told Norcross he didn't think Williams would make a good mayor. But that Kenney would. And then he explained to Norcross how to get Kenney elected, by getting out early in the campaign with ads that would define the candidate and his opponents first, before anybody else got a chance to do it.

"He didn't tell me about any of this union stuff," Oxman said. "I've never known George to get involved in the middle of a union fight. The union fights are in a separate world."

No spokesman on behalf of the carpenters could be reached for comment.

In the interest of fairness, it could be pointed out that Johnny Doc and the Jersey carpenters weren't the only unions meddling in the Philly mayor's race. A second super PAC, Forward Philadelphia, also supported Jim Kenney to the tune of $1.4 million, with big contributions from the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME].

Did Norcross arrange that deal too? Or do lots of union people naturally flock to our blue-collar, labor-loving mayor without having to wait for Boss Norcross to tell them what to do?

Big Trial Scorecard: Philly mag deserves credit for taking on a powerful and, some would add, elusive subject like George Norcross. But, as an old editor once told me, if you're going to take a shot at the king, make sure you don't miss.

The Philly mag story is marred by overblown rhetoric throughout, a few dumb mistakes, some close calls that could have been easily avoided, and a couple of instances where it looks like, through deliberate omission of known facts, that the magazine was out to sandbag the subject of the story.

By the time we get to the story's main point, the alleged plot to funnel out-of-state union PAC money to Kenney, we have doubts about the accuracy and objectivity of the reporting. It doesn't help that others allegedly involved in the plot are issuing denials, as is Norcross. And that none of those denials are reported in the Philly mag story.

The story wasn't labeled as analysis or opinion. Instead, Philly mag presents as fact a theory backed by an assumption.

 Sorry, but it looks like a stretch.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. It appears that the Norcross saga may play large in the long awaited Vinnie Fumo tome that promises to sink the many enemies of Vincenzo.

    1. You, sir, are smoking crack.

    2. No offense pal, just hoping that the Fumo saga is a bestseller.

      The Fumo/Sprague/Rendell/Decker casino partnership if examined could sink a cruise ship.

  3. Right from the "debate" get-go George Norcross says he refused to be interviewed by Holly Otterbein because "she's demonstrated an unprofessional, incompetent nature..." (can nature be incompetent?) Has Mr. Norcross had past dealings with Ms. Otterbein? How has he arrived at that startling conclusion? You shouldn't complain if your first line of defense is a gatekeeper flak. I thought the magazine piece and Big Trial's meddling in the matter entertaining. Oh, yeah, just looked at the Twitter page photo of Lexie Norcross. Mr. Norcross, your only complain should have been: "my daughter is much prettier then that drawling." Of course it was an icy cold windy day when you all posed.


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