The relentless corporate pursuit of special tax breaks is bad for the fiscal health of cities and states, but it is usually completely legal. An exception to this rule is taking place in New Jersey, where a well-connected company has been the target of a criminal investigation.
Holtec International, the company in question, is involved in various energy-related businesses, including the decommissioning of defunct nuclear power plants. In 2014 it was the recipient of a $260 million tax-related subsidy from the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program to create jobs at a facility in the struggling city of Camden. As the advocacy group New Jersey Policy Perspective pointed out, the deal had weak provisions relating to local hiring, training programs and even the number of jobs the company would actually have to create to get the tax benefits.
Despite benefitting from that largesse, Holtec got itself in trouble when it allegedly tried to cheat a different tax incentive program, the Angel Investor Tax Credit. The company qualified for a credit based on a $12 million investment it made in the battery company Eos Storage. That credit is capped at $500,000.
According to the New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin, Holtec sought to circumvent that limit by trying to make it appear that it and a related company called Singh Real Estate Enterprises had each separately invested $6 million in Eos and thus could each claim the $500,000 credit. Holtec allegedly did so by submitting misleading documents to the state’s Economic Development Authority (EDA).
In announcing the resolution of the case against Holtec, the AG recently said: “We are sending a clear message: no matter how big and powerful you are, if you lie to the State for financial gain, we will hold you accountable — period.”
Yet Holtec is getting off easy. The AG allowed the company to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement instead of facing criminal charges. Under that agreement, Holtec must pay $5 million in penalties, forgo the angel investor credit and retain an independent monitor to oversee future dealings with the state.
Instead of showing appreciation for the leniency agreement, Holtec issued a sharply worded statement alleging that the entire investigation was retaliation after the state failed in a previous legal action against the company relating to that $260 million subsidy deal. The EDA had sought to rescind the award because the agency said it belatedly discovered that the company’s original application had not disclosed a disciplinary action brought against it by the Tennessee Valley Authority. That action, a temporary debarment, stemmed from a case in which Holtec was linked to improper payments made to a TVA manager to help secure a contract.
Holtec’s claim that its failure to mention the TVA debarment was inadvertent was accepted by the New Jersey courts and the tax credit was upheld.
This entire episode should serve as a reminder of the drawbacks of a system in which companies come to believe they have an absolute entitlement to tax breaks—and states don’t do enough to monitor the eligibility of applicants and the compliance of recipients. It also raises the question of whether there is more fraud in the economic development subsidy system than we have assumed.