Sharpe James heads to court on Monday

Jury to begin hearing case against former Newark mayor
March 2, 2008 2:53:38 PM PST
Opening arguments are set to begin Monday in the first of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James' federal corruption trials.In this one, James is accused of arranging the sale of nine city properties to his frequent traveling companion, Tamika Riley, at a discounted rate. For 20 years as mayor of Newark, Sharpe James was a commanding speaker, giving vigorous addresses touting the prospects of a city struggling with poverty and crime.

But on Monday, James must listen quietly as a federal prosecutor outlines the corruption charges against him and a traveling companion in a case that could send the former mayor to prison and tarnish his legacy.

Lawyers for James and the woman, Tamika Riley, are to follow with a preview of their defenses in the trial. James is accused of arranging for the sale of nine city-owned properties at discounted rates to Riley, who then sold them for big profits.

The opening statements come after a 12-person jury and seven alternates from around northern New Jersey were seated Friday following four days of selection. During the process, potential jurors were asked dozens of question, including if they could judge James and Riley fairly if they heard evidence that they had an affair while James was married.

The trial is expected to last several months. Afterward, James is to be tried on charges he used city-issued credit cards to pay for $58,000 worth of personal expenses while he was mayor, including trips with several women other than his wife, to Martha's Vineyard, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Rio de Janeiro.

The charges for both trials came from an indictment July 12. James, 72, and Riley, 38, pleaded innocent and are free on bail.

The courtroom is just a block from City Hall, where James presided from 1986 to 2006 before deciding not to seek a sixth term. He also served as a state senator from 1999 to January 2008, when he left office after not seeking re-election.

During his tenure, many crumbling buildings were demolished and today the city is laden with projects he championed, including the decade-old New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center, a hockey arena that opened in October.

James faces five charges, including fraud and conspiracy. Riley faces those charges and eight others, including tax evasion.

Under federal advisory guidelines, James could face seven to eight years in prison if he is convicted on all counts although a judge could impose a much stiffer penalty - as much as 20 years on some individual counts.

James is at least the fourth former Newark mayor to be charged with wrongdoing in the last 70 years. The only one to go to prison was Hugh J. Addonizio, who was mayor in the 1960s, and was convicted of extortion and conspiracy. He served five years of a 10-year prison sentence.

James is one of the best-known figures snared in a series of corruption cases brought by the U.S. Attorney's office. In the past several years, federal prosecutors garnered more than 100 public corruption convictions of elected and appointed officials and people doing business with them such as contractors.

That string included the conviction of former Camden Mayor Milton Milan and guilty pleas from former Paterson Mayor Martin G. Barnes, former Hoboken Mayor Anthony J. Russo, and former Asbury Park Mayor Kenneth E. Saunders Jr.