N.J. Supreme Court won't hear Sharpe James's Bridgegate argument, campaign cash appeal

By Bill Wichert | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 28, 2015

The New Jersey Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, seen at federal court in this 2008 photo, after a state appeals court found he violated state law by spending campaign funds on legal expenses in a criminal investigation.


NEWARK — The New Jersey Supreme Court has declined to hear former Newark Mayor Sharpe James's appeal of a ruling that he illegally used about $94,000 in campaign cash to pay for legal bills in the criminal case that ultimately sent him to federal prison.

The decision, handed down on April 21 by the state's highest court, marks the latest defeat for James in the lawsuit filed against him and others in 2011 by the Election Law Enforcement Commission, which has claimed James violated state campaign finance laws.

As part of his petition to the Supreme Court, James argued ELEC's position in his case was inconsistent with how it allowed Gov. Chris Christie's re-election campaign to use its funds in response to subpoenas in investigations related to the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

In light of ELEC's approach in that matter, James's attorney, Angelo Genova, said on Tuesday in a statement that the Supreme Court's decision to not hear the appeal is "most disappointing and unfair."

"The Court had the opportunity to address that double standard had it chosen to take Mr. James' appeal, but chose, without explanation, not to do so," Genova said.

But in response to James's petition, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office argued the two cases are different, because James was the target of a grand jury investigation, while the governor's campaign was not, according to court documents.

While subpoenas in James's case were directed to his campaign treasurer and his State Senate office, "they involved the criminal investigation of Mr. James," according to a brief filed with the Supreme Court by the Attorney General's Office.

James countered that, since he did not receive subpoenas personally, ELEC should have viewed his campaign expenses in the same way as the governor's campaign, court documents state.

James — who served as mayor from 1986 to 2006, and as a state senator from 1999 to 2008 — petitioned the Supreme Court to take on the case in the wake of a decision issued in January by a state appeals court.

In that decision, the appellate panel upheld a Superior Court judge's August 2012 ruling that James violated state campaign finance laws by spending $94,004 in campaign funds on his legal defense.

The lower court's ruling also ordered James and his campaign treasurer, Cheryl Johnson, to repay the campaign funds and imposed a $30,000 fine, but appellate panel modified the reimbursement amounts owed by them, and ordered that the fine be re-evaluated.

In addition to James and Johnson, the Election Fund of Sharpe James also was named as a defendant in ELEC's lawsuit.

The campaign funds in question were spent on legal services provided before and after James was indicted in July 2007 on charges of fraud and conspiracy.

A jury convicted James in 2008 of illegally steering city land to a former girlfriend at the time, Tamika Riley. James served an 18-month sentence in federal prison in Virginia before returning to Newark in April 2010.

In his appeal, James conceded it is illegal to use campaign funds for legal expenses after an indictment, according to court documents.

But James argued the money could be spent on legal bills before his indictment, because he said they represent "an ordinary and necessary expense of holding public office," court documents state.

The appellate panel, however, rejected that argument in its Jan. 16 decision.

"There is no support for the claim that being under criminal investigation is a customary, usual, or normal occurrence when one holds public office," the decision states.

But the appellate panel modified the amount of campaign funds to be reimbursed by James and Johnson.

Since the majority of the campaign funds was spent on James's legal fees, the appeals court found that James and Johnson should not both be held responsible for the entire $94,004.08 reimbursement.

Consequently, the panel ordered James to reimburse his campaign fund in the amount of $86,504.08 and Johnson to pay $7,500.

The appellate judges also vacated the $30,000 fine, because the Superior Court judge "failed to consider the aggravating and mitigating factors," the decision states.

The panel remanded the matter for a hearing at which the trial court must consider those factors and determine the appropriate penalty for James and Johnson, the decision states.

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