IMAGE: SHARPE JAMES
Mike Derer  /  AP
Sharpe James arrives at the federal courthouse in Newark, N.J., on Monday.
updated 3/3/2008 7:46:39 PM ET 2008-03-04T00:46:39

Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James abused his office by steering discounted city property to a girlfriend who then sold the parcels for large profits, a prosecutor told jurors Monday at James’ fraud trial.

“This case is about fraud, favoritism and concealment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Kwon said in his opening statement.

James got romance while co-defendant Tamika Riley made profits by quickly selling the land instead of redeveloping it as required, Kwon said.

“The only people who didn’t benefit from these land deals were the people of Newark,” Kwon told the jury.

James and Riley have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail. James, 72, faces five charges, including fraud and conspiracy. Riley, 38, faces those charges and eight others, including tax evasion.

James, mayor of New Jersey’s largest city for more than 20 years, is accused of arranging for the sale of nine city-owned properties at a discounted rate of $46,000 to Riley, who then sold them for $665,000, Kwon said.

James is married
Witnesses, including members of James’ security detail, will testify about trips and gifts exchanged between Riley and James, a married man nearly twice her age, Kwon said.

During the defense opening, James’ lawyer, Thomas Ashley, said Riley “was treated the same way as everyone else.”

“Sharpe James was not corrupt. He was not a crook,” Ashley told the jury.

Riley’s attorney, Gerald Krovatin, said his client worked in public relations and ran a fashion shop and was exactly the kind of person who should be helping to revitalize the city.

“She was as qualified as anyone else who got that opportunity,” Krovatin said. “She is not a flat, one-dimensional cardboard cutout of a scarlet woman.”

U.S. District Judge William J. Martini dismissed two jurors before opening statements began. He did not immediately explain his action.

Trial could last months
After this trial, which is expected to last several months, James faces a second trial on charges alleging 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.

James was mayor 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.

Under federal advisory guidelines, he could face seven to eight years in prison if he is convicted on all counts.

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

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