Fordham Law


Closing Case, Prosecutors Focus on Former Mayor’s Ties to Publicist

Paul Radvany in The New York Times, March 29, 2008

Media Source

By RICHARD G. JONES

NEWARK — Over and over, a federal prosecutor, Judith H. Germano, placed photocopies of to-do lists and marked-up calendar pages on the overhead projector. There were notations like “The Boss!!!” or “The Mayor” or a circled letter M.

On the witness stand, an F.B.I. agent said that the notes, made by Tamika Riley, referred to her meetings with the former mayor of Newark, Sharpe James, and showed the closeness of the relationship between Ms. Riley, 39, and Mr. James, 72.

Seated at one end of the defense table as this unfolded on Thursday, Ms. Riley, a publicist from Jersey City, stared straight ahead and shifted her weight in her seat. At the other end sat Mr. James, stock-still and seemingly untroubled. Both are charged with conspiracy and fraud.

At issue is whether Mr. James acted improperly in the sale of nine properties to Ms. Riley through a redevelopment program to revitalize the city’s hardscrabble South Ward. Ms. Riley bought the properties in three transactions over four years for a total of $46,000 and quickly resold them for a profit of more than $650,000 without upgrading most of them, as was required by the contract with the city. Both Mr. James and Ms. Riley contend that they have done nothing wrong, and that any efforts by Mr. James on her behalf were not improper.

As federal prosecutors wrapped up their case against Mr. James and Ms. Riley on Friday — which included 33 witnesses over 16 days — there was a sense among some who have been following the trial that the prosecution has built a much more solid case against Ms. Riley than against Mr. James.

“The problem with the government’s case is that they have not been able to draw a direct line showing money going to Sharpe James’s hands, which is toxic,” said one defense lawyer not involved in the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to strain relations with the United States attorney’s office.

Despite establishing the romantic relationship between the two, the lawyer said, prosecutors have not produced a witness with direct knowledge of a plan to steer the properties to Ms. Riley.

“They do not have that one cooperating witness that’ll say, ‘Sharpe James said to do this. Sharpe James said to do that,’ ” the lawyer said. “They’re asking jurors to draw inferences about what happened in the huddle; usually they have someone in the huddle. The government is laboring without those two crucial pieces”: a cooperating witness and a way to link money to Mr. James.

But other lawyers said that even without showing that Mr. James had profited from the sale of the properties, prosecutors might still have been able to convince the jury that the five-term mayor conducted himself improperly.

“If the government can prove that Riley lied in order to obtain property from Newark at discounted prices, and Sharpe James knew about her scheme and facilitated it, then he could be convicted even if he did not directly profit,” said Paul Radvany, a former federal prosecutor who is now a clinical associate professor at the Fordham University School of Law.

In testimony over the past week, prosecutors have tried to create a detailed picture of Ms. Riley’s finances as they pursue tax, fraud and conspiracy charges against her. Ms. Riley’s accountant, David Schwartz, testified that she did not file corporate tax returns for her public relations firm, T.R.I., for six years or report income from the sale of the properties.

An earlier witness, Beth Skinner, who works with a New Jersey housing assistance program, the Department of Community Affairs, said that Ms. Riley collected $27,000 in low-income housing subsidies even as she profited from the sale of the properties.

As for Mr. James, the most damaging — and embarrassing — testimony for him and his wife, who has attended the trial, has come from workers for the city and friends who have testified about the mayor’s romantic relationship with Ms. Riley.

But prosecutors have hit more than a few bumps in their case against Mr. James. Within the first week of testimony, a key witness for the government, Basil Franklin, the city’s former housing director, testified that no properties were steered toward Ms. Riley by Mr. James, which prosecutors later said contradicted Mr. Franklin’s grand jury testimony.

A city official, Councilman Augusto Amador, testified that although he and his colleagues approved the sale of the properties to Ms. Riley, he did not feel that he was pressured by Mr. James to do so.

Then on Wednesday, Judge William J. Martini of Federal District Court, who is hearing the case, rebuked prosecutors for withholding information about a witness from defense attorneys.

And he had little patience on Friday when Ms. Germano, an assistant United States attorney, argued over the wording of an order to the jury. “I don’t have all day on this issue,” Judge Martini said, his voice rising.

Despite the long, often highly detailed testimony about land sales, municipal codes and subsidies, the judge has tried to keep the trial moving quickly. It is unlikely to last several months, as had been predicted.

The trial resumes on Tuesday. Ms. Riley’s lawyer, Gerald Krovatin, said that his case could last three days, and Mr. James’s lawyer, Thomas R. Ashley, said that he planned to call only three witnesses, which could perhaps take just a day. “Maybe even less than a day,” Mr. Ashley said.

Yet for Mr. James, only half of the battle will have been fought. He faces a second trial on charges that he improperly billed the city for $58,000 in personal expenses, including trips with Ms. Riley and other women.