When Kay Coles James left her job as director of the Office of Personnel Management on Jan. 31, her story resembled that of a hundred other political appointees headed out the revolving door of government. Now it is a case study of the potential perils of cashing in.

James, 56, appeared to be the kind of well-connected Beltway player who could quickly land a lucrative private-sector post and glide back into government when the right opportunity came along. Her resume includes stints as a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, senior vice president of the Family Research Council and a Cabinet secretary for then-Virginia Gov. George Allen (R).

But James chose poorly.

On May 3, MZM Inc., a small and relatively unknown defense and intelligence contractor, announced that it had hired James as a senior executive vice president for national security transformation.

"Ms. James brings with her a wealth of tested expertise demonstrated over twenty years in public service," MZM President Mitchell J. Wade said in a news release trumpeting the hire. "We look forward to Ms. James providing the same quality leadership for the employees and clients of MZM Inc. as she has so successfully demonstrated on behalf of our country."

The company needed more than James could offer.

By June, MZM was under federal scrutiny after reports that Wade bought the home of Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) in 2003 and sold it for a $700,000 loss. Wade also allowed the lawmaker to stay on his yacht rent-free. Investigators searched MZM's headquarters, as well as Wade's and Cunningham's homes. Cunningham announced last month that he will not seek reelection.

Wade stepped down as chief executive and president. In the ensuing management shuffle, James briefly became the chief operating officer. But late last month the company issued a statement saying that James and another executive had "voluntarily resigned" on June 24.

All in all, it was not the softest landing for a former presidential appointee.

Down but not out, James remains a member of the board of directors of Amerigroup Corp., a Virginia Beach-based managed health care provider. And on July 8, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt named her to a 28-member advisory commission that will search for ways to stabilize and strengthen Medicaid.

Kent Jenkins Jr., a spokesman, said Amerigroup was "lucky" to have James. "She's being sought after by a number of corporations for board seats," he said. "She's extremely knowledgeable in a lot of critical areas. This other business aside, she already is extremely busy."

-- Christopher Lee

Kay Coles James may have stubbed her toes when she left government but seems to be regaining her equilibrium.