This story was reported by Kate Coscarelli and Mark Mueller. It was written by Mueller. Published in The Star-Ledger July 13, 2007.)
Tamika Riley, a woman with a flair for fashion and an appetite for finery, appeared to be flat broke.
Her Newark clothing boutique had gone belly up. She needed public assistance to help pay the rent on her Jersey City apartment. She wanted a Mercedes, but her credit was so bad that a friend had to sign the lease for her.
Then, in the late 1990s, she met Newark Mayor Sharpe James, and her fortunes turned. Riley, whose diverse resume included experience as a flight attendant, a UPS manager and a publicist, soon had a lucrative new sideline.
Yesterday, federal authorities said Riley’s real estate dealings with the city of Newark were at the heart of a fraud carried out with James, with whom she shared a “close personal relationship.”
Between 2000 and 2005, Riley bought nine city-owned properties at fire-sale prices totaling $46,000, then quickly sold the lots for nearly $700,000, according to the 86-page indictment.
Riley, 38, had frequent “private meetings” with the 71-year-old James at local hotels, at her home in Jersey City and at the Bayville vacation house James owned with his wife, the indictment states.
She also became James’ occasional travel companion, joining him on trips to California, the East End of Long Island and a seaside resort in the Dominican Republic, among other destinations.
Separately, authorities said Riley cheated the IRS and committed fraud by continuing to collect as much as $788 per month in housing subsidies after taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the land deals.
FBI and IRS agents, some wearing bulletproof vests, arrested Riley at the Jersey City home of a friend just before 1:30 p.m. yesterday, allowing her to kiss her mother, Linda West, before placing the handcuffed woman in the rear of a cruiser.
“I love you, mom,” she said, declining comment to a reporter.
An emotional West called the number of federal agents – at least nine were on hand – “overdramatized,” saying her daughter was not a flight risk.
“This is uncalled-for,” the mother said. “You would think she was a corrupt criminal. She ain’t never been in trouble in her whole life. . . . She has a lot of integrity. This is only by association. She has not committed any crime.”
West described James as her daughter’s mentor but said the relationship did not go any farther.
“There was an attraction at the beginning, but that was just a moment,” she said.
About an hour after the arrest, Riley and James were in federal court in Newark for an initial appearance. She was released on $100,000 bail.
It was not immediately clear how Riley met James, who declined to seek re-election as mayor last year after two decades in office. The indictment states the two have known each other since at least 1999, when they allegedly began colluding on real estate deals.
But it was hardly unusual for those in Newark’s small business circles to have come in contact with the former mayor. Riley once owned the Fashion Dome, a modest boutique on Commerce Street. On the side, she coordinated small fashion shows in the city.
In a short profile in Black Enterprise magazine in 1998, Riley said she had been inspired by the TV show “Dynasty” to design clothes as a teenager. She told the magazine she later earned marketing certifications from the Fashion Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland and Jersey City State College, now known as New Jersey City University.
Though she claimed sales at the shop were climbing, the business closed in 1999, the same year she formed a new entity, Tamika Riley Images Inc., a company meant to market and cater to those in the entertainment industry.
At the time, Riley’s personal finances were in disarray, according to the indictment, which outlined her need for public housing assistance and her difficulties obtaining the lease on the Mercedes.
After meeting James, Riley used TRI to buy and sell properties, authorities said. In addition, she won a city contract worth $17,500 to produce Beyond the Cover, a quarterly magazine for teenagers.
In recent months, as questions were raised about her land sales and trips with James, Riley has consistently declined to comment.
Riley’s mother said the weight of the federal investigation has been difficult on her daughter.
“She is a very sensitive, nervous person with all of this coming down on her,” West said. “She has held up real good today.”
Staff writer Ian T. Shearn contributed to this report.