Two SJTA officials charged with retaliatory conspiracy

An ongoing grand jury investigation into power broker George E. Norcross III’s influence over South Jersey government agencies led to the first criminal charges Friday as state prosecutors unveiled cases against two public officials accused of abusing their position to seek revenge on an enemy Norcross.

Christopher M. Milam and Bryan J. Bush, both commissioners of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, are accused of leading an effort last year to delay payments owed to an agency contractor after one of its executives crossed Norcross politically.

Although prosecutors spent months investigating what direct role, if any, Norcross may have played in the alleged plot to withhold those funds, the complaints filed Friday did not accuse or charge the leader of South Jersey’s influential Democratic political machine with any wrongdoing. allegations. with a crime.

The charging documents filed against Milam and Bush did not identify Norcross by name but clearly referred to him throughout, calling him only the “leader of the South Jersey Democratic Party” and citing his dispute with a contracting company executive in 2022 as the reason for the decision to voting against paying the company money owed to it under its contract with SJTA.

Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin said the investigation will continue.

“Today we are sending a clear message: No matter how connected or powerful you are, if there is evidence to suggest that you have used your position and taxpayers’ money for retaliation or political gain, we will hold you accountable,” he said. “For people to have confidence in government, they must not feel that the wealthy and well-connected operate by a different set of rules than everyone else. The law cannot treat people differently. My office will continue to hold powerful people and powerful institutions accountable.”

Meanwhile, Norcross spokesman Dan Fee maintained the case had nothing to do with his client.

“As we have said repeatedly and in previous public statements, Mr. Norcross was not involved in the South Jersey Transportation Authority matter,” Fee said in a statement.

The investigation so far

The charges were the first public sign of progress in a years-long, multi-pronged investigation into Norcross and his allies that has involved at least two grand juries, dozens of hearings and dozens of subpoenas to government officials and agencies.

Norcross, a 68-year-old insurance executive and Camden native, has never held elected office but is widely viewed as one of the state’s most influential political figures, having built a political machine in South Jersey over the past quarter-century by pushing allies into office public and key government roles.

Last year, The Inquirer reported that investigators were looking into whether he and his brother Philip used their political influence to acquire properties to outdo rival developers.

The investigation continues and has not resulted in any charges being filed.

” READ MORE: Sources say NJ AG corruption investigation focuses on George Norcross’ influence over Camden waterfront development

Investigators later expanded their investigation, issuing a transportation subpoena earlier this year to the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which oversees the Atlantic City airport and the Atlantic City Expressway, and interviewing witnesses. As a result, Sewell (45) and Bush (52) were charged on Friday.

Both were charged with conspiracy, misconduct and perjury, which in the most serious cases could result in up to 10 years in prison.

Milam, who is also chairman of the Washington Township Democratic Committee in Gloucester County, and Bush, who also works as business manager for Philadelphia Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 19, declined to comment Friday, referring all questions to their attorneys.

Robert Agre, Bush’s lawyer, declined to discuss the matter. Milam’s attorney, Ari Schneider, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Revenge plot

Specifically, prosecutors charged the two men with conspiring in 2023 to block payments to Middletown, New Jersey-based engineering firm T&M Associates to retaliate against executive John Cimino after he resisted Norcross’s requests.

In December 2022, Norcross met with Cimino — who is also a Mercer County commissioner — at a Starbucks in Trenton and asked him not to endorse any candidate in the Democratic primary for county executive next year. Cimino ignored this request and publicly endorsed a challenger to Norcross’s preferred candidate.

Cimino’s objections and Norcross’s displeasure came to light shortly thereafter in a Dec. 19 report on their altercation in Insider NJ. According to investigators, within hours of the article’s publication, Milam sent a text message to the political strategist, who was not named in the case file Friday.

– So we’re not supposed to be good now? [Cimino?]” wrote Milam.

Later that day, Milam contacted SJTA Executive Director Stephen F. Dougherty and asked, “Is there any problem now with [T&M.]”

“Not that I know that,” Dougherty replied in a text exchange cited in Friday’s court filings. “Did something happen?”

A month later, as the SJTA board prepared to vote on a batch of invoices that had already been approved for payment by agency employees, including one issued by T&M for work performed under a contract at the Atlantic City airport, Milam and Bush conferred before board meeting scheduled for February 15.

“As you know, I plan to vote no on all counts [T&M’s] bills,” according to the complaint Milam sent. “They cut out South Jersey in Mercer County, so now we vote no.”

Prosecutors say the last sentence was a reference to Cimino’s decision to oppose Norcross in the Mercer County race. Bush allegedly told Milam he would vote the same way. The charging documents do not indicate that anyone asked them to do so.

Yet the two continued to vote against paying T&M over the next three months, resulting in more than $165,000 in delayed payments to the company, according to documents obtained by The Inquirer through a public records request.

” READ MORE: George Norcross probe: Emails show how contractor fell out of favor with New Jersey state agency now under investigation

Prosecutors say the dispute only ended after Cimino complained to a lobbyist who brought the matter to the attention of former New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat and key Norcross ally who helped Milam and Bush become appointed to the SJTA board.

Sweeney was not named in Friday’s court documents, but he was identified as a former Senate president “who was politically supported” by Norcross. Still, these documents show that a few hours after Sweeney learned of the situation in May 2023, he called Milam and shortly after SJTA staff sent emails stating that the T&M invoices would be approved for payment at the next board meeting.

Later that month, Milam and Bush voted to pay the bills. They provided no explanation for their change of course.

“The evidence established that these defendants abused the power they held as SJTA board members to exact revenge against this particular company and one of its employees,” said Drew Skinner, chief of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Law. Responsibility.

A spokesman for SJTA declined to comment on the matter.

Milam and Bush charged with lying to a grand jury

Milam and Bush were also charged Friday with perjury during testimony earlier this year before a grand jury investigating their past votes.

Milam told the panel he voted against paying T&M because of concerns about the company’s performance, including its failure to include certain items in plans to build a maintenance garage at the airport. But prosecutors noted that SJTA employees didn’t discover the error until March 2023 – long after Milam and Bush decided to vote against approving the company’s invoices.

He also maintained that he was unaware of the dispute between Norcross and Cimino – a claim that investigators said was contradicted by text messages he sent the day news of the conflict between the two men broke.

Bush told the grand jury that he voted against paying T&M because Milam told him the company was “underperforming” and that delaying payments would be a way to get the company to “do its job or catch up” would not proceed.”

Prosecutors said Friday that the simultaneous exchange of text messages between the two commissioners spoke for itself.

Milam and Bush have been ordered to respond to the charges at a July 15 hearing in Mercer County Superior Court.

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