Book Review: Political Prisoner: Sharpe Twists and Turns

BY ART GALLAGHER Sharpe James never lacked for self-confidence. Or strong opinions. In the first chapter of his new memoir, the former Newark mayor likens himself to his “role models;” biblical and historical political prisoners Jesus, John the Baptist, the Apostles James and Peter, Gandhi, Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Governor Christopher Christie, who as U.S. Attorney prosecuted James in 2008 on five counts of fraud related to the sale of Newark owned property, is likened to Lucifer and “a slovenly intoxicated King Herod” who was given James’s figurative “head on a platter” by former friends and associates who lied under oath in order to save their own necks from prosecution.

James refers to Christie and former President George W. Bush as “head hunters.”

Political Prisoner reads like two books. In between the opening chapter that sets up the context of his persecution and the closing chapters recollecting his prosecution and imprisonment, James tells the compelling story of his remarkable life lived during a tumultuous American century.

From his dramatic escape with his mother and brothers from an abusive step-father in his native Jackson, Florida, to the racism he confronted during his youthful development, military service and professional life, James’ story is a history lesson of Newark,New Jersey and the United States from his birth in 1936 to present day, told from the perspective of African American civil rights and political leader.

James’s name-dropping tales — from serving in Army with Elvis Presley, to sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom while assisting President Bill Clinton in getting the 1990’s Crime Bill passed, to attending a Madonna concert in the Meadowlands with heiress/philanthropist Doris Duke,  to his insider’s tales of how Jim McGreevey became governor instead of Bob Torricelli and why Dick Codey folded and did not challenge Jon Corzine for the 2005 Democratic gubernatorial nomination — the story of James’s life is red meat for students of New Jersey history and politics.

While many Democrats needed James’s support to further their careers, Republican Chris Christie needed James’s “head on a platter,” in order to move from the U.S. Attorney’s office to Drumthwacket.

As James tells it, Christie’s investigation, indictment and prosecution of the mayor were motivated purely by Christie’s political ambition, and assisted by the ambitions of Mayor Cory Booker, who feared James would not take to retirement and might make another run for Mayor, and by Governor Jon Corzine, who feared James might challenge him for reelection as the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

James learned the hard way that “Blind Justice” and “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” are abstract ideals and not always the ethos of law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

He learned the hard way that being arrested and incarcerated is humiliating, dehumanizing, dangerous and has little to do with rehabilitation. 

He learned the hard way that the Scales of Justice are heavily tilted by the unlimited power and resources of the government and the human motives of the men and women who are entrusted with that power.

James alleges that Christie’s U.S. Attorney’s office tried and failed to fabricate evidence against him, that witnesses against him were disloyal or lied to save their own hides from prosecution and that the jury of “10 Whites and wannabe Whites” convicted him after sleeping through his trial and being tampered with by the government. He complains that Judge William J. Martini, a Republican former Congressman, did not issue a directed acquittal, even after acknowledging that the government failed to prove its charges or that Newark suffered any financial losses in the sale of property to his co-defendant.

James’ only crime, according to his telling of Martini’s rulings, is that his failure to disclose his relationship with his co-defendant was a “deprivation of honest services.” The “honest services” law used to convict him was later overturned, 9-0, by the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the vacating of the convictions of Joe Vas, the former Assemblyman and Mayor of Perth Amboy, and Joseph Ferriero, the former Chairman of the Bergen County Democrats, and others around the country. (Mayor James actually goes into a good bit of detail about that in a memorable letter to the New York Times.)

Yet James’s conviction was not overturned when Vas’s and Ferriero’s were, because Christie’s power and influence as governor extends to the Federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, he says.

Should Politcal Prisoner make it to a second printing, which I hope it does, it should be updated to reflect the events since U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg’s death, Booker’s election to the U.S Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to consider James’s final appeal. It should also be edited to correct minor factual errors (Lautenberg was last elected in 2008, King’s I Have A Dream was delivered in 1963, and the Duke Estate is in Somerset County, to name a few needed corrections).

But those are minor quibbles with an otherwise solid walk down the twisted historical streets of Brick City.

Art Gallagher is the founder and editor of More Monmouth Book Review: Political Prisoner: Sharpe Twists and Turns