AG says activist dragged out of N.J. Statehouse was not targeted over politics

New Jersey State Police remove Sue Altman, state director, New Jersey Working Families, before George E. Norcross III, left, testifies in front of the New Jersey Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth Strategies about his role in the controversial state tax incentive program, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, in Trenton, N.J. (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

New Jersey State Police remove Sue Altman, state director, New Jersey Working Families, before George E. Norcross III, left, testifies in front of the New Jersey Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth Strategies about his role in the controversial state tax incentive program, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, in Trenton, N.J. (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

New Jersey troopers did not act inappropriately — nor were they motivated by politics — when they dragged a dissenting activist out of a high-profile legislative hearing last year, the state attorney general has concluded.

But in a letter to the committee that oversees state capitol facilities, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the Statehouse lacks well-defined rules about what qualifies as disruptive behavior and asked prosecutors to drop a disorderly conduct charge against Sue Altman, who heads the left-leaning New Jersey Working Families Alliance.

Grewal also asked the committee to address complaints raised by advocacy groups about security policies they say are increasingly shutting them out of the political process.

Altman said while it’s encouraging the attorney general called attention to the “outdated and incomplete rules” governing advocacy in the Statehouse, she was disappointed by the “tiny scope” of his inquiry.

“The pieces that were the most egregious that day weren’t necessarily how the troopers handled me personally, but how the entire room and the staff and the entire situation that day was meant to exclude” the public, she said.

Altman’s forcible removal from a hearing room in November — she fell to the ground as three state troopers escorted her out — prompted accusations she had been targeted for her political views.

She was among those who booed or cheered testimony at a packed hearing on New Jersey’s tax incentive programs, which expired last June amid controversy.

When state Sen. Bob Smith, the committee chairman, ordered a row of people who made noise in the back of the room to leave, a trooper headed straight for Altman, who was standing elsewhere.

The incident overshadowed the testimony Altman and other activists had come to see: that of South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross III, whose company and allies have benefitted handsomely from state tax breaks now under investigation for mismanagement and self-dealing.

Altman said arbitrary determinations about room capacity that day prevented many people from attending, including a group of residents from Camden, which has seen a building boom fueled by $1.6 billion in state tax credits.

“The idea that that room was full that day, I think for me, just underscored that the entire situation that day was just meant to be a curated experience for George Norcross to make his points about Camden development, which, fittingly, was also very exclusionary,” she said.

Altman has been an outspoken critic of the tax credit programs and Norcross specifically. One news outlet painted her ouster as exposing the rift between the New Jersey Democratic Party’s progressive wing, led by Gov. Phil Murphy, and more moderate Democrats, including those aligned with Norcross.

Grewal said in the letter that “there is no credible evidence” to indicate the troopers involved were motivated by political considerations or acting at the behest of anyone opposed to Altman’s views.

“The State Troopers who removed Ms. Altman did so because they believed that she was being disruptive during the hearing and refusing to respond to the instructions of law enforcement,” Grewal wrote.

He said the troopers used “the least amount of physical force necessary” and did not intentionally cause Altman to drop to the ground.

Nonetheless, Grewal asked the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office to move to dismiss the disorderly conduct citation that a trooper issued to Altman after the confrontation. That matter is currently pending in Trenton Municipal Court.

Altman said the report still doesn’t resolve why she was picked out of a crowd at the hearing, although she credited the attorney general for starting to look into other questions.

“Like, what is disruptive in the Statehouse?” she said. “Who gets to decide what disruptive means? It sounds to me like disruptive is kind of in the eye of the beholder, and you can easily see how that could be used for political considerations.”

Grewal also asked the State Capitol Joint Management Committee to review security policies that have drawn the ire of advocacy groups.

Those groups have said Altman’s removal is indicative of a larger trend of lawmakers “chipping away” at democratic norms.

Lawmakers consistently introduce bills at the last minute and refuse to let audience members speak, they say, while advocacy organizations are denied meeting space in the Statehouse, booted from the grounds for not having the proper permit and refused access to the building to deliver petitions.

“To help build trust,” Grewal wrote, “I recommend that [the committee] and [State Police] affirmatively engage with those individuals and organizations who most frequently attend events and protests at the complex, opening lines of communication that can help defuse tension in the long term.”

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