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Ex-N.J. mayor's corruption trial begins Tuesday

For 20 years, Sharpe James wielded immense power as mayor of New Jersey's largest city, a political boss who eventually held a dual role as a state senator.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For 20 years, Sharpe James wielded immense power as mayor of New Jersey's largest city, a political boss who eventually held a dual role as a state senator.

But Tuesday, he becomes just another criminal defendant as he begins the first of two federal corruption trials.

Much is at stake for the 72-year-old former power broker, notably his legacy and his pension — not to mention, years in prison if he's convicted. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

"He happens to be a larger-than-life figure," said Alan Zegas, one of James' attorneys. "He has done an enormous amount for the city in a very public way."

James is at least the fourth former Newark mayor to be charged with wrongdoing in the last 70 years. Only Hugh J. Addonizio, a mayor in the 1960s who was convicted of extortion and conspiracy, has gone to prison.

Questionable land sales alleged
Newark is laden with projects championed by James, including the decade-old New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center, a hockey arena that opened in October.

But prosecutors say that while he secured such projects for the city, he also helped a girlfriend profit through questionable land sales and used city money to support a jet-set lifestyle with other women.

The first trial centers on whether he arranged for the sale of nine city-owned properties at discounted rates to Tamika Riley, a woman nearly half his age with whom he traveled. Prosecutors said they will present evidence to show the two had an intimate personal relationship.

Prosecutors said James steered the properties to Riley, 38, and helped her quickly resell them at much higher prices. Riley was able to buy the properties though she lacked real estate, construction and financial experience, the indictment alleges.

Riley raised and donated campaign money for James and traveled internationally with him, enjoying vacations and meals partly funded by city credit cards, the indictment alleges. She will stand trial with him for land fraud charges only.

James and Riley pleaded not guilty to all charges and are free on bail. Prosecutors have said they expect the first trial to last as long as three months, with 40 to 50 witnesses.

Serious charges
The first trial likely won't have the salacious details of the second, where he is accused of using 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 in the first trial _ abusing his office to provide Riley with unfair financial gain _ are more serious, said Robert A. Mintz, a former federal prosecutor with U.S. attorney's office in Newark.

"This is the case that really matters to prosecutors," he said. "This is the case that goes to the heart of the government's allegations of corruption."

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

The trials could overshadow James' accomplishments as mayor, said Clement Alexander Price, a professor of history at the Newark campus of Rutgers University.

"For some people, Sharpe James will always be remembered as the most significant mayor after the near collapse of Newark in 1967," he said, referring to the city's deadly riots. "He helped to stabilize the city. His articulate rhetoric of optimism was infectious."