Appeals court rules Sharpe James illegally used campaign money for legal fees



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NEWARK, New Jersey — Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and an associate improperly used about $94,000 in campaign funds to pay for legal fees surrounding James' federal indictment in 2007, a state appeals court wrote in a decision published Friday.

The panel's ruling upheld a lower court's ruling from 2012.

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission sued James in 2011 over $94,000 it claimed he and the associate took from campaign funds to pay for legal fees. James was indicted on federal corruption charges and was ultimately convicted in 2008 of illegally steering city-owned land to his mistress.

The appeals court on Friday rejected the argument by James and Cheryl Johnson that legal expenses incurred before an indictment was handed up were an ordinary expense of holding public office.

"Retaining an attorney to attempt to stave off an indictment or, if one appears inevitable, to prepare for the impending criminal charges is by no means an ordinary expense of holding public office," the panel write. "There is no support for the claim that being under criminal investigation is a customary, usual, or normal occurrence when one holds public office."

Johnson, who was James' campaign committee's treasurer, wasn't a target of the federal investigation but still wasn't allowed to use campaign funds to pay for legal advice on how to respond to subpoenas, the court wrote.

The appeals court sided with James and Johnson on the issue of a $30,000 penalty they were assessed, and sent the matter back to a trial court for reconsideration.

Angelo Genova, an attorney representing James, declined comment on the ruling Friday.

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