The Gravy Train is Over

Former Mayor Sharpe James spent 20 years as the city’s chief executive without having to be accountable to many people. He and his administration were investigated by government agencies on numerous occasions, but amazingly he was never indicted. There are accusations, innuendos, rumors and strong reason to believe that it wasn’t just a coincidence that the mayor’s former chief-of-staff was arrested and went to jail for having a few hundred grand in cash hidden in the floor boards of his home. (His chief-of-staff was also a very close relative.) Every time Sharpe James was challenged on how a public servant with a limited income could own a huge yacht, millions in real estate and appear to live really high on the hog, his typical response would be to rhetorically ask, “Why is it that a black man in America can’t have money?” Sharpe James has been playing the “race card” forever. Every time he’s been challenged by the media regarding his spending practices, the way he ran his administration, the strong-arm tactics that his police force used against his political nemesis Cory Booker in the 2002 mayoral campaign, James would never respond directly. He was the master of obfuscation. He was all smoke and mirrors. But I have always given Sharpe James credit for being Newark’s best cheerleader. He was an advocate who helped bring in private investments and keep my home town of Newark afloat, even if the economic activities were disproportionately focused in the downtown area. But now everything has changed. Sharpe James’ out of control spending of public money appears to have caught up with him. In a series of front page stories that started in the Star-Ledger and now has expanded to the New York Times and other major publications, James is being challenged on his use of two credit cards that he had full access to and appeared to spend tens, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars on trips to exotic locations, lodging in four-star hotels, and eating in only the best restaurants. It was reported that James took a trip to Rio de Janeiro during his last week in office using both credit cards, one assigned to the city, and the other to the police department. James spent nearly $7,000 for him and his private security detail to take a five day trip. James argues that he was on city business. More specifically, James said that he was following up on a 2004 trip he took to Rio in which he lectured on “affirmative action, sanitation, housing and poor people.” He had his two body guards with him because “Brazil is a hot spot for crime”everybody knows that.” But one must wonder why James had to go to Rio in the last few days of his 20 year reign to follow up on a speech he made two years ago. James told reporters to call Brazilian officials and find out from them. However, Brazilian officials made it clear that James called them to ask if he could come down and have a one hour meeting with them to compare notes. Five days in a luxurious hotel with two body guards, eating at the best restaurants, for a one-hour meeting? Couldn’t the mayor just have placed a call or sent an e-mail asking for feedback? No, not Sharpe James. He appears to have convinced himself that he was owed the right to use bank credit cards to live like a king, even though the state government had banned such a practice for municipal officials for obvious reasons. Now, grand jury subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney’s office and the state Attorney General„s office had been delivered to city hall and to the police department. Investigators want to know more about these credit cards and exactly how the mayor and his entourage used these credit cards for what looks like private activities that should have never been funded with public tax payer money. This all at a time when Newark youngsters are being shot and killed on the streets and the new Booker administration seeking every dollar it can to hire more police to protect individual residences and businesses. But Sharpe James couldn„t care less. Just as when he was mayor, he refuses to have an open, candid, meaningful conversation about his irresponsible spending practices. But this is no Newark issue. This is an issue for the entire state of New Jersey to deal with. It is an issue for the Democrats in the state legislature to ban the current practice of allowing candidates who amass huge financial war chests to use left over money to create bogus civic non-profit organizations that are nothing more than slush funds to keep living the good life. It appears that’s exactly what Sharpe James was prepared to do with the campaign money he had and never used when he opted not to run for mayor against Cory Booker a few months ago. Jon Corzine and the Democratic legislative leadership must tell the former mayor and current State Senator, “No, Sharpe, it’s over.” We’re not going to stand idly by while you rape the public treasury and gorge yourself at the public trough. Sharpe James is hopeless. He’ll never understand. The bigger question is whether his Democratic colleagues in the Statehouse are willing to do something about it. Oh, yeah, the last time Sharpe James came under heavy pressure from the Feds? That investigation seemed to go up in smoke and disappear. Democrat Bill Clinton was president at the time. Sharpe James was Clinton’s friend and a major political supporter. That’s some coincidence, don’t you think? We’ll see what happens now.

The Gravy Train is Over