Al Sharpton Caught on FBI Tape Allegedly Trading Influence for Campaign Contributions

This week, it became public knowledge that Al Sharpton appears to be under federal investigation for criminal conduct associated with his presidential campaign and the handling of funds. The FBI raided his offices and called his staff to appear before a grand jury. Now, a tape has emerged from a secret taping of Sharpton by the FBI at a New York hotel suite in 2003 purportedly showing him bargaining for contributions in exchange for influence.

The tape reportedly shows Sharpton meeting with Philadelphia businessman Ronald A. White. The FBI hid a bugging device in a lamp inside Suite 34A at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan. While wants to win a multimillion-dollar business deal. Sharpton offers that, if White helped him raise $50,000 for politics, he would help him secure the deal.

White offered $25,000. “If you bring my guys up on this hedge fund, and I have the right conversation,” White said, “I’ll give you what you need.” The Inquirer obtained an account of the May 9, 2003, conversation, which was recorded as part of the Philadelphia City Hall corruption case. The tape helped spark a separate inquiry into Sharpton’s 2004 campaign and his civil-rights organization, the National Action Network. The FBI-IRS probe resurfaced publicly Wednesday, when Sharpton aides received subpoenas.

In an interview yesterday, Sharpton said there is “absolutely nothing illegal” about tying business deals to fund-raising because he is not a public official. “The tapes vindicate me,” Sharpton said. “They show that I did not talk about bribing a public official or paying money under the table.”

The newspaper reports that FBI agents tapping White’s phones in 2003 recorded more than 20 conversations between White and Sharpton. About a year later, White, Hawkins and a dozen others, including former City Treasurer Corey Kemp, were indicted in Philadelphia on federal pay-to-play corruption charges.

Sharpton may be correct that, since he was not a public official, it protects him from most charges such as bribery. Of course, only Sharpton would spin this tape as “vindicating” him. At a minimum, it seems to confirm that common view of Sharpton as a shady operator who has cashed in on his various causes. More importantly, there remains a torpedo in the water for Sharpton in the current grand jury investigation.

Rev. Al Sharpton’s office was raided and staff subpoenaed in a sudden move by federal agents. There is clearly a grand jury investigation afoot and Sharpton’s 2004 Presidential run seems to be the focus of the probe. With at least 10 subpoenas to testify, it seems to be a fully developed investigation and makes possible indictments more likely.

Sharpton’s various political and non-for-profit organizations have always been a bit murky in their relationship and possible co-mingling of funds. Co-mingling appears to be one of the issues under investigation. There is also an allegation of the misstatement of money raised in 2004 — used for matching funds. The usual concern in such cases is that the figure was inflated to get more matching funds from the public coffers.

Two years ago, Sharpton was forced to return $100,000 in matching taxpayer funds. In 1993, he was pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for failure to file a tax return. His most infamous legal run-in, however, occurred in connection with the case of Tawana Brawley. Om 1987, Sharpton made himself a national figure when he organized protests after Brawley was found inside a plastic bag behind an apartment house in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. She was covered with feces and racial epithets smeared on her body and accused various white men, including Steven A. Pagones, a former Dutchess County assistant district attorney. Sharpton attacked Pagones and the other men with Ms. Brawley’s lawyers, Alton H. Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason.

A grand jury eventually found that the account was a hoax and Pagones successfully sued Sharpton, Maddox, Mason and Brawley. Sharpton has never apologized for his role and failed to pay the damages until various businessmen came forward to pay the damages for him in 2001.

His latest problems could be an embarrassment to officials like Hillary Clinton who have cultivated the support of Sharpton in the past.

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