When the Atlantic City Development Corporation, a private non-profit company that leverages public dollars, awarded a no-bid contract to build the $206 million Stockton University and South Jersey Industries campus in Atlantic City, it was no surprise the contract went to the similarly politically connected Joseph Jingoli & Son.
Jingoli & Son has worked on large scale DevCo projects for years in New Brunswick.
But in this case, it was a different son with the connection to Jingoli that raised eyebrows.
Employed in development by Jingoli & Son is Connor Paladino, the son of Chris Paladino, the president of A.C. and New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO). Connor Paladino is a 2012 graduate of the University of Notre Dame.
Jingoli is a powerful builder who has led projects in New Brunswick and Camden, and was the former co-owner of the energy plant that powered the failed Revel Casino. Jingoli was also briefly named redeveloper of the city's inlet section, an action later rescinded by City Council.
After a previous story referencing Jingoli's involvement with the Stockton project, two people, a disgruntled former employee and someone who worked on projects with Jingoli, cited Connor Paladino's connection to ACDevCo in telephone messages, raising questions about the company's landing the lucrative general contracting job. Neither identified himself.
Chris Paladino, president of DEVCO, which has branches in New Brunswick and, more recently, Atlantic City, downplayed the role of his 26-year-old son's employment, which he said dated back several years and stemmed from a summer job.
"My son has worked there for a number of years," Paladino said in a telephone interview. " He works on the development side of the business, and doesn't work on our projects."
He said he did not know his son's salary. "I don't know. He's an adult."
He said the non-profit DevCo company's ties with Jingoli date back 18 years. The company, while leveraging public dollars, is private and is not required to bid out contracts or conform to state ethics or nepotism regulations.
Paladino bristled at the idea that his son's employment influenced the awarding of the contract, and defended the company as one of the only developers moving forward on projects in Atlantic City.
He said awarding the contract to the builder employing his son did not indicate an improper "cozy" relationship.
"You know what? We're doing probably the most," he said. "It's not cozy. We're doing a project that that no one else seemed to be able to get off the ground. He wasn't hired because they do work for us. It's a big company."
Chris Paladino was one of the authors of a report spearheaded by powerful Gov. Christie adviser Jon F. Hanson that first recommended using the DevCo public-private partnership model, successful in New Brunswick, to redevelop the beleaguered city. DEVCO has overseen about $1.8 billion in New Brunswick redevelopment, according to its website.
The Hanson report favoring DevCo involvement was issued at Christie's request, an outgrowth of three summits in Atlantic City held by a governor's advisory commission headed by Hanson.
Paladino formed the offshoot AC DEVCO, which amassed the land in the city's Chelsea neighborhood that will be home to a new Stockton campus and relocated corporate headquarters for South Jersey Industries.
The 270,000-square-foot Gateway project is funded with about $145 million in bonds from the Atlantic County Improvement Authority, plus tax breaks from the state Economic Development Authority.
The state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which has overseen redevelopment in the city since casino gaming became legal in Atlantic City, was also due to kick in $17 million for the DevCo project, according to initial plans, but has yet to do so.
The CRDA has lost its principal source of funding, a 1.25 percent tax on gaming revenue, which the state legislature redirected beginning this month to the broke city's municipal coffers, as part of the state takeover of Atlantic City.
The CRDA chief, John Palmieri, left the agency at the end of 2016 and was awarded a $225,000 severance. He was replaced by his deputy, Chris Howard, a former attorney in the governor's office who also worked for the powerful law firm run by Philip Norcross, brother to South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III.
An earlier plan to locate the Stockton campus at the old Showboat fell through due to conflicting deeds regarding permitted uses in the building's post-casino existence. It is now run as a non-casino hotel by Bart Blatstein. Stockton's acquisition of Showboat, led by former president Herman Saatkamp, was part of what led to Saatkamp's departure.
A message left with Jingoli corporate headquarters was not returned. Emails sent to Joe Jingoli and Connor Paladino were not returned.
Chris Paladino said no other relatives work for Jingoli, and that his son had no involvement in the Atlantic City project.
As for the project itself, which officials hope will transform the southern end of Atlantic City and invigorate the struggling seaside town, he said: "We're on schedule. We're digging. We're pouring concrete."
A "Comprehensive Anti-Nepotism" bill that would expand the state's existing anti-nepotism laws to specifically regulate contracts awarded by public agencies was introduced in early 2016 but never made it out of committee.