The Reverend Al Sharpton, anchorman, preacher, politician and shakedown artist extraordinaire, has led what can be viewed as a charmed life. A lengthy expose published yesterday on The Smoking Gun website (see pdf) provides some insight as to why. Starting in 1983, the New York-based civil rights activist, who 20 years later would run for president, allegedly worked for several years as an FBI informant to avoid prosecution. In return for helping the feds root out organized crime from the entertainment industry, Sharpton since then has operated with near immunity. “The Rev” denies he worked as an informant, adding that the report simply rehashes “old news.” Yet the weight of evidence, carefully amassed by Smoking Gun editor/co-founder William Bastone, can’t be ignored. Sharpton might consider hiring an extra bodyguard.
As the host of MSNBC-TV’s “PoliticsNation” program since the summer of 2011, as well as his own radio show, Al Sharpton, now 59, seemingly has come a long way from his rabble-rousing past. In recent years he has taken to calling himself a “refined agitator.” While unable a decade ago to realize his ultimate position of refinement, President of the United States, he’s done the next best thing: He has become a close friend of the current president. Sharpton has been a frequent guest of Barack Obama at the White House – and an occasional host to Obama. President Obama is the scheduled featured speaker this Friday in Manhattan at the annual convention of Sharpton’s Harlem-based nonprofit activist group, National Action Network (NAN). Obama has addressed NAN attendees twice before, in 2007, as a U.S. senator, and in 2011, as president. Yet the Reverend remains an agitator, despite having traded in his jumpsuit for a coat and tie, and having somewhat toned down the volume on his blend of black identity politics, street agitprop and church preaching. A smart operator, he is now more than ever a force to be reckoned with in American public life. And he still knows how to revert to his “old” mode if the situation calls for it.
Armed with an almost preternatural gift for mobilizing large crowds, Sharpton has amassed a long track record of activity that by any reasonable definition qualifies as demagoguery – and on due occasion, incitement to riot. Five years ago NLPC published my Special Report, “Mainstreaming Demagoguery: Al Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability” (see pdf). The monograph noted in detail how under the guise of “justice,” “rights” and other noble precepts, he has endangered civilized public discourse and public safety. The crusade against New York City “subway vigilante” Bernard Goetz; the high-powered campaign in defense of Tawana Brawley, a troubled black teenaged girl who had fabricated a rape and assault hoax against white police officers in upstate New York; the defamation of Trisha Meili, the white female jogger brutally beaten by a gang of black teens in Central Park; the black riot in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which resulted in a murder; the attack on a white-owned Harlem business, Freddy’s Fashion Mart, that left more than a half-dozen people dead – these and other operations bear the mark of Al Sharpton’s misguided notion of justice.
Sharpton’s modus operandi has been to serve as an “advisor” to a black family in a criminal case with racial implications. The goal, depending on the nature of the incident, is to: 1) railroad into prison a white defendant; or 2) secure withdrawal of criminal charges against a black defendant. These campaigns have helped foster the belief among blacks that they are victims of a rigged justice system. Two years ago, at the National Action Network convention in Washington, D.C. (which I attended), Sharpton played public-relations consigliere to the parents of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager shot to death only weeks earlier by a white crime watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, during the act of beating Zimmerman. The plenary speaker at that event was Attorney General Eric Holder. Several audience members bluntly asked Holder why he hadn’t filed federal “hate crime” charges against Zimmerman, who by all accounts had fired his gun in self-defense. They didn’t have to wait long to achieve a measure of satisfaction; later that day, Zimmerman was arrested on a state second-degree murder charge (a charge which, justifiably, did not stick).
Sharpton also has a penchant for financial chicanery. The Federal Election Commission several years ago fined Sharpton and his debt-ridden National Action Network $285,000 for violating various election laws during his presidential run. Previously, the FEC had ordered him to return $100,000 in taxpayer matching campaign funds and denied him another nearly $80,000 for which he previously had qualified. Sharpton has yet to repay the $100,000. And by the end of 2011, NAN, despite taking in about $3 million that year, owed $2.6 million in back taxes to the IRS and nearly $900,000 to the State of New York; Sharpton at the time claimed he had been working out a repayment plan. Private creditors haven’t fared well either. NAN skipped out on a $70,000 tab (plus lawyer’s fees) owed to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, the site of the nonprofit group’s 2008 convention, though Sharpton stated a few years later he had nearly satisfied the debt. NAN also owed as much as $193,000 to the New York City-based Alpha International Travel. And as of late 2012, NAN owed more than $28,000 in rent to a nonprofit, the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), for subleasing office space from COMTO for its Washington, D.C. operations.
With a track record like this, one has to ask: How does Al Sharpton do it? How has he managed to stave off prosecutors and creditors alike? One possibility is that he has powerful people in the U.S. government looking out for him, beginning with President Obama and Attorney General Holder. Even people who don’t necessarily consider him an ally might be looking out for him because way back during the Eighties, Sharpton, in hot water at the time, helped the government put away a bunch of Mafia wise guys and associates. That’s where the new Smoking Gun expose, “Al Sharpton’s Secret Work as FBI Informant,” comes in. Authored by veteran crime watcher (and Smoking Gun editor and co-founder) William Bastone, the article lays out a strong case that the Reverend Al, unbeknownst to friend or foe, for several years was an FBI mob rat.
Under the code name “CI-7,” Sharpton, beginning in 1983, allegedly gathered extensive information for a joint task force comprised of FBI agents and New York City police detectives. Based on that information, the feds were able to secure court authorizations to bug two Genovese social clubs, including the Greenwich Village headquarters of family godfather Vincent “the Chin” Gigante, three cars, and more than a dozen phone lines. The information was instrumental in securing a number of guilty pleas.
In an interview with The Smoking Gun at his Harlem headquarters just prior to publication, Sharpton vehemently denied working as an informant. He alleged that the federal government was trying to suppress his brand of civil rights advocacy and possibly have him killed. His prior cooperation with the FBI, he emphasized, was limited to initiating investigations of drug trafficking in black neighborhoods and cheating of black recording artists out of royalties. As Reverend Al spins the narrative, he merely was a concerned citizen looking out for his own people, cruelly used by the U.S. government as an expendable mole. At the risk to his own life, Sharpton, a black Donnie Brasco, was a true hero. The alternative story, which law enforcement agents across the board insist is the real one, is that Sharpton himself was a crook. In order to avoid criminal charges, he did what a lot of people in his position would have done: Flip for the Justice Department.
But why would Sharpton, of all people, be tapped for these dangerous assignments? The answer has to do with his connections to the music industry, much of which was controlled by the New York criminal underworld. The Genovese crime family in particular had a foothold in concert promotion, record distribution and talent management. Sharpton since around 1973-74 had been an aide and road mule for James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. One doesn’t get higher up the industry food chain than that; Sharpton even wound up marrying one of Brown’s backup singers. By around 1983, he wanted to spend more time running his nonprofit group, National Youth Movement, precursor to National Action Network. The Reverend knew all kinds of music people, many of them hustlers, thieves and thugs. He also was good friends with boxing and concert promoter Don King, who put the pieces together for the Michael Jackson/Jackson Five Victory Tour of the latter half of 1984 and who won the Jacksons a $5.2 million deal with Pepsi for doing a pair of commercials. The loquacious King, with his trademark electric Afro hairdo, also was the target of an ongoing federal investigation into boxing corruption.
Al Sharpton, presumably out of a sense of duty to fellow blacks and out of fear of being implicated, helped the feds. Yet Bastone disputes this account. He argues that Sharpton, most of all, was looking out for himself:
(B)y any measure, Sharpton himself was a Mafia “associate,” the law enforcement designation given to mob affiliates who, while not initiated, work with and for crime family members. While occupying the lowest rung on the LCN [La Cosa Nostra] org chart – which is topped by a boss-underboss-consigliere triumvirate – associates far outnumber “made” men, and play central roles in a crime family’s operation, from money-making pursuits to more violent endeavors.
For more than four years, the fact that Sharpton was working as an informant was known only to members of the Genovese squad and a small number of other law enforcement agents. As with any Mafia informant, protecting Sharpton’s identity was crucial to maintaining the viability of ongoing investigations. Not to mention keeping him alive.
But was Sharpton’s role voluntary? The evidence suggests not. The article quotes an FBI agent assigned to the Genovese squad: “He thought he didn’t have a choice.” Sharpton, seen by the government as the quickest path to Don King, was entrapped by an undercover agent posing as a wealthy drug dealer/boxing promoter. On during two separate occasions, Sharpton was caught on videotape negotiating a cocaine deal. In one case, he was with Daniel Pagano, a Genovese crime soldier and son of Joseph Pagano; the elder Pagano was a longtime Genovese made man knee-deep in music industry operations and who had done a nearly seven-year stretch in federal prison for heroin distribution. In the other, Sharpton was with Colombo crime family captain Michael Franzese. An undercover agent offered Sharpton “pure coke” at $35,000 a kilo. As he spoke, Sharpton nodded his head, saying, “I hear you.” The Rev also responded favorably when offered a 10 percent finder’s fee on behalf of other coke buyers.
FBI agents weren’t sure if they had enough on Sharpton for a prosecution, but they did believe they could convince him to work for them. And they succeeded. As Bastone tells it:
The FBI agents confronted Sharpton with the undercover videos and warned that he could face criminal charges as a result of the secret recordings…In subsequent denials that he had been “flipped,” Sharpton has contended that he stiffened in the face of the FBI agents, meeting their bluff with bluster and bravado…In fact, Sharpton fell for the FBI ruse and agreed to cooperate, a far-reaching decision he made without input from a lawyer, according to sources.
Thus, Al Sharpton, FBI informant, was born.
The probe focused on some colorful characters. There was the mobster, Joseph Pagano, who controlled Sammy Davis Jr., and for good measure, was engaged in kickback schemes with several Columbia Records executives. Pagano also was a close friend of comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who had performed at the weddings of Pagano’s son and daughter during the 1970s. And there was Morris Levy, who was the founder and head of Roulette Records. Levy, a heavy straight from central casting, ran the label as a profit center for the Genovese crime family. He was a go-to guy in the record industry whose net worth was north of $50 million. Much of that wealth represented his cut from the $30 million to $40 million he’d siphoned away over the years from Roulette’s biggest hitmakers, Tommy James and the Shondells.
Most importantly, insofar as Sharpton was involved, there was Gambino soldier Joseph “Joe Bana” Buonanno, owner of a record distribution business in Manhattan plus several record stores. Sharpton had met with Buonanno on many occasions. And he was tight with a Buonanno enforcer, Robert Curington, a convicted black drug dealer. Curington served as a mentor to Sharpton, eventually assuming the grand-sounding title of Vice President of Industrial Affairs for National Youth Movement. On a practical level, that meant pressuring (i.e., shaking down) major record labels and concert promoters into spending more money in the black community. The pair in 1986 also lined up endorsements by black ministers for Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y., at the time in a tough re-election race against Democratic challenger Mark Green. They also intimidated Joseph Robinson, the debt-ridden founder of the hip-hop label, Sugar Hill Records, who had given Morris Levy a stake in the company in return for bailing him out. Curington, a one-time running back at North Carolina Central University, at one point used his athletic prowess to land a punch against one of Robinson’s sons as part of a debt collection effort.
By the end of the Eighties, any number of wise guys and associates either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. The chief ringleader, Joe Pagano, died of natural causes two months before a grand jury accused his son, Daniel Pagano, and other persons of loan sharking, extortion and money-laundering. His death relieved prosecutors from having to act on the allegation that the son “solicited the use of a bank account of the National Youth Movement” for the purpose of money-laundering. Al Sharpton controlled that account. Had the Rev been charged and called to testify, the course of recent American history might well have shifted.
Reverend Sharpton, as stated earlier, denies he was an informant. In his account, he had been set up by people who wanted to discredit the civil rights movement. He points to his own 1996 autobiography, “Go and Tell Pharaoh” (his first of three), pages 79-85 of which describe his music business connections during the Eighties. Sharpton paints himself as a victim, not a hustler, a crusader for justice who wanted to give underpaid black artists their proper due. And he sees Don King as a pawn in the feds’ game as well. Sharpton explained things this way:
Joe Spinelli, an FBI agent, came around with other agents, they showed me badges and say that they wanted to talk to me about Don King. The claimed they had us in a sting and that there was nothing I could do about it but cooperate. I said, ‘Prosecute.” I hadn’t done anything. I was angry, actually, and I asked them why they didn’t go after the drug dealers selling to the kids on the street, that I would happily work with them on that. We went back and forth for several months, I think they thought I would come over, and I kept hoping they would do something about crack, which was just coming in then, and which was worse than anything we had seen to that point.
I called Spinelli in 1986 – he was working in the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s Office – to try and get help setting up an 800 number for drug enforcement. This was cited when the allegations of my being an FBI informant became public in 1987. It was alleged that I had worn wires against friends, most notably Don King, that I associated with organized crime figures, and that I myself have been involved in organized crime. The media, The Village Voice in particular, ran with this and smeared me without foundation.
Missing from this account is that Al Sharpton used his mob associations to build a career of shakedown artistry passing for “civil rights.” In other words, even if he were completely clean, the fact remains he built his fledgling National Youth Movement, on the taxpayer’s dime. National Youth Movement eventually would morph into National Action Network in the early Nineties. As Michael Kinsley likes to say, “The real crime is what’s legal.”
So who is telling the real story here, Bastone or Sharpton? The answer lies not so much in the facts as in the context. Given Sharpton’s long history of (unpunished) criminal behavior, it is entirely conceivable that the government’s reluctance to prosecute him over the years is an ongoing “thank you” note for a job well done back in the Eighties. “Sooner or later,” Jimmy Hoffa observed, “everybody does business with everybody.” A lot of dots certainly connect here. One thing is for certain: As long as Barack Obama is president, Sharpton has a business partner. When the President goes before the National Action Network confab this Friday at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel in midtown Manhattan, it’s a good bet that he and Sharpton will be all smiles when they stand together on the podium.