Friday, March 07, 2008

Policing - Ledger - James had cop install Riley's AC on city time

Published in the Star-Ledger, Friday, March 07, 2008

Cop offers chilling tale at ex-mayor's trial

James' bodyguard recounts installing air conditioner at woman's apartment

Star-Ledger Staff

A police bodyguard for former Newark mayor Sharpe James testified yesterday that he was ordered to install an air conditioner in the Jersey City apartment of Tamika Riley while he was on duty.

Adelino Benavente, a Newark police officer for 21 years, was the fourth witness prosecutors put on the stand this week in the corruption trial of James and Riley, his co-defendant.

Prosecutors are trying to prove James rigged city land deals for Riley between 2000 and 2006 because she was his girlfriend and are calling witnesses in an attempt to establish that romantic link. Benavente was one of a handful of officers who worked on James' executive protection detail during that period and is one of several of the former mayor's bodyguards expected to testify.

Under questioning from Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Perry Primavera, the veteran police officer often appeared uncomfortable, speaking in clipped sentences and repeatedly saying his recollections about specific dates and details were hazy.

Primavera showed Benavente documents regarding an air conditioner purchased from a P.C. Richards store in July 2002. James' Visa card was billed $409.47 for the purchase, according to statements prosecutors showed the jury.

"I don't recall paying for it, but I recall seeing my signature on one of the receipts," Benavente said, confirming that James authorized him to make the purchase. He said he and two other aides were ordered -- he couldn't recall by whom -- to pick up the air conditioner, deliver it to Riley's Jersey City home, and install it.

Benavente described Riley as a "personal friend of the mayor. An acquaintance." He also said Riley would call his cell phone -- at one point twice a day -- to reach the mayor, but that he did not view such calls as a high enough priority to interrupt the mayor in meetings.

Pressed for details, he said, "I have no recollection of the dates or times." He also said he recalled James once refusing to take Riley's call, saying, "Miss Riley is dating someone. I don't want to talk to her right now."

Benavente is due back on the stand today in federal court in Newark.

Riley's defense attorney has acknowledged she and James had an intimate relationship, but said it was brief and began after Riley had already begun purchasing city land. Prosecutors say the relationship began at least as early as 2000 and that Riley's access to city land dried up during rough patches in the couple's romance.

Rose Marie Posella, James' longtime personal secretary, testified earlier this week that it was her impression Riley became the former mayor's girlfriend as far back as 1999. Under cross-examination, she acknowledged that recollection was different than what she said during her grand jury testimony and in interviews with the FBI. She said she remembered more the more she thought back to that time.

Posella completed her third day on the stand yesterday. Under cross-examination by Gerald Krovatin, Riley's attorney, she acknowledged that in addition to her support of the mayor, Riley was a supporter of City Council members and attended their political events.

Defense attorneys contend the council, not the mayor, has ultimate control over the land deals, which are intended to spur redevelopment.

Prosecutors say James illegally steered nine properties to Riley, a publicist and businesswoman. She purchased the properties for $46,000 and quickly sold them for more than $600,000, usually without any rehabilitation, authorities said.

Prosecutors also called City Clerk Robert Marasco to the stand yesterday to explore those purchases.

Riley's applications for the land deals were lacking required information when they were approved by the council between 2001 and 2004, Marasco said. He also said he perused several packages of resolutions passed by the council approving the sale of the properties to Riley.

Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip Kwon, Marasco said three of the packages did not contain project proposals, preliminary site plans, estimated total development costs or amount of financing. The fourth contained something similar to a proposal, but still did not have all the elements required of the applicants, he said.

Marasco also said council members don't meet with developers until after a resolution is placed on their agenda by the administration.

During cross-examination of Marasco, the defense presented 11 municipal ordinances and resolutions that authorized land sales to various developers, all for $2,000 per unit, the same price Riley paid for her properties.

Online story here. Archived here.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.