Newark officials are trying to stop Sharpe James from running for city council this year, perhaps because they think he can win.
The 85-year-old James, who served on the city council from 1970 to 1986, as mayor of the state’s largest city from 1986 to 2006, and as a state senator from 1999 to 2008, is seeking a political comeback this year as a candidate for one of four at-large council seats.
City Clerk Richard Louis has rejected James’ petition for an at-large city council seat, citing a 2008 court order that barred him from holding public office after his conviction on federal fraud charges that year. James served 18 months in a federal prison.
But James argues that the Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg’s 14-year-old forfeiture order is no longer valid since the courts later said the government failed to prove any official corruption occurred.
Two weeks after Feinberg signed the forfeiture order, U.S. District Court Judge William Martini said that then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie failed to prove that James had personally profited by the charges that Tamika Riley purchased city-owned land and later resold it at a profit, or that Newark lost any money on the deal.
“I think most of his conduct was inherent in the very nature of his position as mayor,” Martini said at James’ sentencing. “This is not a bribery offense, this is not an offense where a public official was taking money directly to be influenced to approve some land deal or to award some contracts.”
Martini did find that James had deprived the city of his honest services and sentenced him for significantly less than the 15 to 25 years in prison that Christie had sought.
In 2010, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case involving former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling that that honest services fraud charges did not constitute a crime unless it involved a kickback or bribe.
As a result, the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed James’ honest services conviction but upheld a jury verdict on four other counts.
Another 2008 appellate court decision found that James had demonstrated a reasonable probability that the 2008 jury had relied on the all-embracing definition of honest services “with the entire conspiracy theory.”
The state, with Christie serving as governor, did not seek to amend the 2008 forfeiture order that James now says is obsolete.
“Sharpe James is a free man,” James said.
James said he turned in 2,777 signatures on a petition – more than a thousand more than the 1,640 required to get on the ballot.
In his letter, Louis said that he viewed Feinberg’s order as binding. That will force James to head back to court.
“You and I have had several conversations about this situation and each time you have indicated that there is a United States Supreme Court decision that overrules Judge Feinberg’s order,” Louis wrote to James. I have requested details of said order during every conversation, and you agreed to send it to me. As of this date, I am still not in receipt of the decision.”
James’ attorney, Thomas Ashley, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.