Charged with corruption, fraud and conspiracy, Sharpe James (D) allegedly greased the way for co-defendant Tamika Riley to buy nine city lots. James, 72, and Riley, 38, don't deny having had an extra-marital affair. Riley, a publicist who once owned a boutique, turned the properties she purchased from the city around quickly, making a nice return of $665,000 on her investment of $46,000. In the most extreme case, after she bought a lot for $2,000 in August, 2001, she sold it less than four months later for $130,000. Riley is charged with tax evasion, in addition to fraud and conspiracy.
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In his testimony, former housing director Basil Franklin reminded the jury about the redevelopment program for the South Ward, a depressed area of the city. When the Newark City Council approved the plan in 1998, it made no stipulation for advertising the program or public bidding.
According to Franklin, qualified builders were able to buy land for as little as $1 a square foot. But it didn't take long for the program to fall apart, as who you knew, not what you knew, became the only qualification.
"There was no professional or legal vetting of anybody," Franklin said. Instead, builders had to be recommended by members of the City Council and the mayor's circle.
Riley's purchases of city property were approved by the City Council even though some of the applications lacked the necessary paperwork, such as project proposals, preliminary site plans, estimated total development costs or arrangements for financing.
Laying the ground for their charge that James did favors for his mistress at city expense, prosecutors called several of the former mayor's bodyguards to testify about the services they performed for Riley. One of them, Adelino Benavente, haltingly recalled being authorized by the mayor to pay $409.47 for an air conditioner, pick up and install it for Riley at her home.
James didn't limit his favors to his girlfriends.