MSNBC host Al Sharpton has long been controversial from his involvement in the Tawana Brawley scandal to questions raised about his pressing companies to give “love offerings” and associations to his legal problems. Nevertheless, his position at MSNBC is viewed as secure while President Obama continues to honor him at official White House meetings and public events, including an event three days ago. This teflon reputation with liberals appears to be holding even after news reports surfaced that Sharpton was an FBI snitch and an associate accused him of seeking to cash in on the drug trade before he became a national figure. Sharpton has been somewhat guarded in answering detailed questions about the stories about his wearing a wire in meetings with the mob, but recently confirmed that he “cooperated” with the FBI. He proved testy with 60 Minutes in refusing to acknowledge that he was an informant. According to reports, the FBI designated Sharpton as “Confidential Informant No. 7” and used him with a bugged briefcase to incriminate mob figures in discussions of criminal enterprises. Sharpton insisted “I’m not a rat, I’m a cat.” He certainly has nine lives given the range of his past scandals. The mayor of New York and other Democratic leaders lined up to praise Sharpton in the aftermath of the story.
The site Smoking Gun broke the story and says that Sharpton denied key facts of their story, including that he was “flipped” after being caught in criminal conduct. He was allegedly used as an informant against the notorious Genovese crime family.
Others who knew Sharpton have come forward with conflicting accounts. One is Robert Curington, 72, who said that he worked for Al Sharpton’s nonprofit organization in the 1980s and that Sharpton wanted to get some of the drug money flowing through black neighborhoods. He said that Sharpton walked into an FBI trap and was flipped. His account includes a detailed account of a meeting with a South American drug lord and at least two follow up meetings. One such meeting involved an effort to incriminate boxing figure Don King in 1983, but King was suspicious. Curington said that Sharpton was less cautious and fell for the sting – leading to his work as an informant. Sharpton has not threatened defamation over the comments which clearly involve a per se category of slander (criminal activity) if untrue. Notably, Curington does not appear to have been present at some of the meetings that he describes in the accounts.
Another former associate, photographer Ahmed Obafemi, has come forward to recall Sharpton and his now infamous bugged briefcase. Obafemi recalls suspicions that Sharpton was trying to set up Joanne Chesimard, who was a fugitive after killing of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster. Obafemi gives details like an offer to pay her $50,000 that he had from supporters if he was given her whereabouts. Sharpton denies any memory of the meetings. That is quite a discrepancy. One would think that Sharpton would be threatening a defamation lawsuit after being accused in such an effort. It would raise an interesting question of whether setting up a fugitive would be defamatory as a black community organizer. Sharpton has long denied allegations that he was trying to set up Obafemi but the recent disclosures have rekindled those allegations. Ironically, the more obvious defamation action would be based on the suggestion that Sharpton was trying to get money to a fugitive cop killer. Either way, these meetings are not something one would likely forget since there were more than one, a large amount of money involved, and the subject was one of the most sought fugitive of the day. It would also just happen to be a criminal act. Sharpton is accused by this man of an act that would make him an accesory after the fact and violate a host of other provisions.
What is fascinating is the continued immunity enjoyed by Sharpton after the ruling against him in the Brawley scandal, criminal investigations, and repeated questions raised over ethics. Even disclosure that he was an informant does not appear to have materially affected his political standing or his position with MSNBC. The latter is particularly interesting given the removal of Keith Olbermann for a couple of small political contributions. Sharpton regularly appears at political events and has this other baggage to boot. Yet, he has been able to largely avoid any detailed discussions while continuing as a host.
Obviously, the impetus for Sharpton becoming an informant is known only to him and the FBI. Usually, the use of a C.I. or snitch is based on the FBI holding something over the individual. That is viewed as making them more cooperative and reliable. It is extremely rare to see a voluntary C.I., particularly by someone who at the time was known as a community organizer at odds with law enforcement. Indeed, in my work as a criminal defense counsel, I have never seen a C.I. in an operation like this that was not based on a prior threat or need for a deal. That is not to say that it could not be a purely voluntary effort as Sharpton has suggested. However, if these allegations are true, Sharpton has compounded the scandal with a false account.
There are a couple of ways to resolve these conflicting accounts. One obvious way would be for MSNBC to get Sharpton to ask the FBI for the release of the full record and to waive any confidentiality. After all, Sharpton used MSNBC to insist that what he did was purely to help his community. He says that he was threatened by people in the mob and that he did the “right thing” by going to the FBI. If so, he is being unfairly maligned and MSNBC should ask for a public letter to the FBI seeking the full files. After all, this investigative record is decades old and the law enforcement value has long passed in keeping it locked away (when the informant himself is asking for disclosure). That would allow total transparency. Since he is claiming to have done this as a purely voluntary act to protect his neighborhood, such disclosure will only support him and counter his critics. Indeed, he would have a basis for a defamation lawsuit. As a political and media figure, such transparency would seem inherent to his position. Indeed, as a media figure, the concern is not just whether Sharpton committed criminal act or lied but whether the FBI had something on Sharpton that would impact his independence as a host. If the accounts are correct, there is material in FBI files that would prove highly embarrassing to Sharpton, if not ruinous.
That effort of transparency was sought a decade or so ago in another allegation that Sharpton offered to be a snitch on another black leader. The New York Times reported that evidence had surfaced that Sharpton was an informant which Sharpton declared was “ludicrous.” Andrew J. Maloney, the former United States attorney in Brooklyn, said that Sharpton was facing state charges of tax evasion and came to offer to provide certain information against an individual. Sharpton again said that he was merely trying to serve his community to help curb drug trafficking. However, unnamed prosecutors said that he was trying to sell out an unidentified black leader. Sharpton was pressured to release Maloney of any further obligation to withhold the details. He agreed but the New York Times said “[t]hen he sent a note voiding his authorization.”
It seems to me that the burden is on MSNBC and NBC establish the full record in such a case. As for Sharpton, he either has promising defamation actions . . . or a lot of explaining to do.
What do you think?