NEWARK – Citing violation of the public trust but noting the former mayor's overall effectiveness while in office, District Court Judge William J. Martini sentenced Sharpe James today to 27 months in prison and a fine of $100,000.
His former girlfriend, Tamika Riley, received 15 months for her role in the corruption case.
In his sum-up, the judge reproved the prosecution for taking a heavy-handed and "inflammatory" approach to James's penalty, saying his imposition of what they hoped would be a maximum sentence of 15-20 years would be an "extreme injustice."
"It disappoints me and it shocks me that government would seek 10-20 year sentencing," Martini said. "I know in the zeal of prosecution, things sometimes get distorted. …If the intent was to advocate for a big sentence to put this court on the spot, I'm not concerned with that, nor was it effective.
"It makes me question some of the perspectives here," added Martini, who also described as "unhelpful" letters he had received calling for the maximum penalty.
He said he struck the proper balance on a "sad day."
Earlier this year, a jury found James guilty of using his influence to help his former girlfriend, Riley, land nine housing rehabilitation contracts with the City of Newark as part of the South Ward Redevelopment Plan.
As he talked through his decision-making process, Judge Martini strove to identify a specific victim, and could not: neither among the the developers nor the property purchasers nor the homeowners.
"The victim here is the public trust, in the sense that there was a failure to disclose a relationship (between James and his then-girlfriend Riley)," Martini concluded.
"Most of the conduct was conduct inherent in his role as mayor," added Martini, who could likewise not pinpoint any restitution James and Riley owed.
"This is not a bribery offense or instance where an individual is taking money," the judge said. "This is egregious but that's far more egregious than what happened here."
James served as mayor of Newark for 20 years, from 1986 to 2006. He beat Cory Booker when Booker challenged James in 2002.
Four years later, James did not file to run for re-election and Booker demolished Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex).
Reflecting on the James legacy, Martini discussed driving into the City of Newark today, passing Bears Stadium, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and the new arena.
"When bad things happen under your watch, you get blamed for everything," said the judge. "On the other hand, when good things happen under your watch, you have a right to make claim. …I think reasonable people looking at that should give him credit for that."
As he considered a "just punishment," Martini leaned on character references, including James's service in the military and his public job as a teacher.
Just before a half hour break on Tuesday, in the lead up to rendering his judgement, the judge reflected on his own experience as a former U.S. Congressman who represented the 8th Congressional District.
"Just because a mayor pushes for a friend – is that corruption?" the judge wondered aloud. "It’s a fine line. I know. I’ve been there. I was a politician."
Placing his sentencing in context, Martini noted how former state Sen. John Lynch received 39 months in prison for bribery, a much harsher crime than what James did, the judge said.
Former Marlboro Mayor Matthew Scannipieco received 21 months for taking $245,000 in bribes from a developer.
"That's more egregious than what happened here," Martini said.
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