Al Sharpton (born Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr.) is a political activist, Baptist preacher, and commentator for MSNBC. In 2004, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
He is founder and president of the National Action Network (NAN), a 501(c)(3) left-wing political advocacy organization that largely conforms to Sharpton’s personal and ideological agenda. Through NAN and other personal ventures, Sharpton has often been the subject of law enforcement investigations and controversy regarding millions of dollars in unpaid taxes.
Both Sharpton and NAN command significant respect from and influence within the mainstream Democratic Party. Sharpton was a frequent visitor to the Obama White House, and Obama twice spoke at NAN conferences. Numerous major labor unions sponsor NAN’s conferences, and at a 2018 NAN event then-U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) credited Sharpton with “saving America.”
His advocacy against perceived instances of racial bias has coincided with numerous controversies regarding his rhetoric and behavior. Without any evidence, he once falsely accused a New York prosecutor and two police officers of gang-raping a 15-year-old African-American teen – an attack later demonstrated to be a hoax perpetuated by the young woman. Speaking at the funeral of a 7-year-old black New York child tragically hit by a car driven by a Jewish resident, and following violence against Jews (including a murder) taking place in the same neighborhood in the days after the accident, Sharpton denounced “diamond merchants” (an anti-Semitic slur) and implied a Jewish ambulance company had neglected the dying child.
Federal law enforcement records reveal past ties between Sharpton and organized crime suspects, which led to him becoming an FBI informant in the 1980s. In a report examining the evidence within these records, and Sharpton’s dealings with reputed crime figures, The Smoking Gun concluded Sharpton fit the definition of a mafia associate, “the law enforcement designation given to mob affiliates who, while not initiated, work with and for crime family members.”
Born in 1954, Al Sharpton is alleged to have preached his first sermon in 1958 (before he learned to read) and was ordained a Pentecostal minister in 1964. He switched his affiliation to Baptist in 1994.
His political activities date to at least 1972, when he worked as the youth director for the U.S. Presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.). He was twice a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in New York (1992 and 1994), once a candidate for Mayor of New York City (1997), and once a U.S. Presidential candidate (2004). He ran in (but did not win) the Democratic primary in all four races.
He founded the National Action Network (NAN) in 1991, and as of late 2018 was still its president. NAN’s behavior as a left-wing political and social advocacy organization has been broadly identical to and frequently in concert with Sharpton’s personal and political agenda. His NAN salary for 2017 was $244,761, and he hinted in December 2018 that he planned to step down as president sometime within or shortly after the forthcoming year.
In 2011, Sharpton became the host of “Politics Nation,” an hour-long, weeknight, primetime national television talk show on MSNBC, on which he provided his own political commentary and interviewed newsmakers. In 2015, MSNBC restructured its TV line up, moving the show from weeknights to two weekend time slots, but reportedly left Sharpton’s salary unchanged. As of 2016, his reported annual salary from MSNBC was at least $750,000. He is also (as of late 2018) host of a three-hour weekday talk radio show.
In January 1991, he was stabbed in the chest during a protest march he was leading in New York City. The assailant was caught and convicted, with Sharpton making a plea for leniency at the attacker’s sentencing hearing. Sharpton filed a lawsuit over the incident, claiming the New York Police Department had been “careless, negligent and reckless” for its inability to protect him, and in 2003 reached a $300,000 settlement with the city.
Sharpton and the National Action Network command significant respect within the Democratic Party and its allies. NAN’s annual convention twice welcomed then-U.S. President Barack Obama. The NAN website quotes President Obama as once referring to Sharpton as “the voice of the voiceless and a champion for the downtrodden.”
Sharpton was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 campaign, endorsing him over fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Sharpton became a regular presence in the Obama White House, attending (among other events) a private celebration of First Lady Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday, an official state dinner featuring then-French President Francois Hollande, and a Super Bowl watch party with the First Family.
Appearing at a NAN conference following the 2018 midterm elections in which Democrats had taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) credited and thanked NAN for “helping to take back America” and Sharpton personally for “saving America.”
An event held for Sharpton’s 60th birthday party in 2014 raised $1 million for NAN, helping the organization bail out from unpaid tax debts. Attendees included New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Organized labor is also a major supporter. A 2016 NAN conference was sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the New York State Nurses Association. 
Racial Bias Protests
A major focus of NAN’s agenda and Sharpton’s career since the mid-1980s has been demonstrations and public relations campaigns against alleged incidents of racial bias and unwarranted police violence. Primarily focused on New York City in earlier years, Sharpton has since become a presence nationwide when these controversies arise. As one example, he gave a eulogy at the 2014 funeral of Michael Brown, the African-American whose shooting death that summer in Ferguson, Missouri, was followed by riotous demonstrations against the police.
Sharpton has frequently been criticized for his rhetoric and behavior during these incidents. A New York City police union leader has called him “one of the chief extremists fanning the flames of anti-police sentiment for his own gain.”
Tawana Brawley Hoax
In November 1987, Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old African-American from upstate New York, went missing. Four days later, she was found wrapped in a trash bag, with racist slurs and dog feces covering her body. She claimed to have been gang-raped by white attackers, one of whom she vaguely identified as wearing a badge and a gun holster. A grand jury would later find that she invented the entire episode, demonstrating (among other findings) that supposedly multiple male attackers had left no trace of semen or physical trauma, that the dog droppings had come from an animal living next door to Brawley, that her fingernails were filled with the charcoal used to write the racial slurs, and that a witness had seen her wrapping herself in the bag.
Before the hoax was exposed, Sharpton took up her cause, holding public rallies and news conferences, all part of what a Vanity Fair profile called “one of the most racially divisive, incendiary cases of its time.” A private investigator working the initial case for Sharpton would later reveal the Brawley team knew her story might be fake, but continued to advocate for it anyway, while counting the donations coming in.
With Brawley’s lawyers, Sharpton identified a local white police officer (who had recently committed suicide) as one of her attackers. When the local district attorney provided evidence to clear the officer, Sharpton accused the prosecutor (along with yet another police officer) of covering up and participating in the rape.
In 1998, the falsely accused district attorney won a series of defamation judgments against Sharpton, Brawley, and her lawyers that added up to more than $500,000. Sharpton’s share of the damages – $66,000 – was paid by several supporters, including criminal defense attorney Johnnie Cochran. Despite this, as of 2016 Sharpton was still refusing to publicly acknowledge the Brawley matter as a hoax.
Crown Heights Riot
In August 1991, a Jewish resident of New York City’s Brooklyn borough of Crown Heights was involved in a traffic accident in which his vehicle slid onto a sidewalk and hit two 7-year-old cousins – both black. One of three ambulances arriving on the scene was from a Jewish service organization, which – at the request of police – removed the Jewish motorist and his passengers, who were beginning to draw the wrath of a crowd of mostly African-American spectators. The remaining paramedics continued to treat the injured children – one of whom died.
Following the child’s passing, a rumor arose in the community that the Jewish ambulance had arrived on the scene, left the injured children unattended, and whisked away only the Jewish participants in the tragedy. Three days of rioting ensued, with the violence directed almost exclusively at the Jewish community living in the neighborhood. The worst of the offenses was inflicted on a Jewish doctoral student from Australia, who was attacked by a mob of 20 people, and stabbed to death.
Speaking at the funeral of the child, Sharpton implied the car accident had been deliberate, denounced the “apartheid ambulance service” and (playing on anti-Semitic stereotypes) alleged “diamond merchants” from South Africa, Tel Aviv and Crown Heights were working in concert with one another. Recalling these events for an essay he wrote in 2016, Sharpton repeated the assertion about the ambulance company ignoring the wounded children, and argued his eulogy rhetoric that day had been “appealing for nonviolence.”
Freddie’s Fashion Mart Fire
During the spring of 1995 a record store owner in New York City (who was black and a native of South Africa) was facing the non-renewal of his lease. The sublease holder was the Jewish owner of a clothing store, Freddie’s Fashion Mart. Freddie’s was in turn also a tenant of a predominately African-American Pentecostal church which owned the property. The record store owner enlisted (among others) the assistance of Sharpton and the National Action Network to take up his side in the private business dispute. The demonstrations that ensued became primarily directed at Freddie’s Fashion Mart, rather than the church. A New York Times description of the protests described “a bitter confrontation marked by racial overtones” that also included the distribution of anti-Semitic literature.
Sharpton’s inflammatory rhetoric during the rallies included referring to the owner of Freddie’s as a “white interloper.” An arsonist subsequently set fire to Freddie’s Fashion Mart, killing eight people.
The Central Park Five
Following the 1989 rape of a white female jogger in New York City’s Central Park, and subsequent arrest of five young African-American males as suspects, Sharpton took up the cause of the accused. According to one account of the 1990 trial he “demonstrated daily outside the courthouse, claiming the youths were being railroaded because they were black and the victim was white.” Then-New York City real estate tycoon and future U.S. President Donald Trump (R) also weighed in loudly on the case, taking out a full-page advertisement in the New York Daily News that advocated for a return of the death penalty.
The men were convicted of various charges relating to the attack and sent to prison. But in 2002 a highly persuasive confession from a career criminal, backed up by DNA evidence proving his guilt conclusively, led to the vacating of the convictions and full exoneration for the original suspects. The five falsely convicted men subsequently sued the city, obtaining a $41 million settlement for wrongful imprisonment, and as of 2014 were seeking $52 million more from the state.
Tax and Financial Irregularities
Over several decades, Sharpton and organizations associated with him (such as the National Action Network) have been embroiled in numerous legal entanglements with law enforcement and tax collection authorities.
The disputes appear to have begun in 1989, when Sharpton was charged by New York authorities with 67 felonies relating to fraud and larceny, including an accusation of theft from his National Youth Movement, an organization that predated NAN. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failure to file a state income tax return.
Federal agents with subpoenas visited the homes of NAN staffers in 2007 to investigate several financial concerns that resulted in a $2 million assessment for unpaid payroll taxes. The last of this debt was reported to have been paid by 2015.
Separately, reports indicated Sharpton had personally attained a tax debt of $4.5 million by 2014 for various issues related to himself and his business affairs. News accounts in late 2018 indicated at least $2.5 million of this debt was still outstanding.
National Action Network Finances
In late 2018 Sharpton sold the film rights to his life story to the National Action Network for $531,000. He asserted the value of the asset could be worth “triple” what NAN paid for it if sold to a film producer, implying the sale was to benefit NAN’s charitable purpose, not enrich Sharpton personally. Sharpton stated buyers in the film industry were eager to purchase the rights from NAN, but did not provide names or details.
NAN is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization ostensibly under Sharpton’s control as its president, in which capacity he was paid a $244,661 salary in 2017. One charitable organization expert questioned the appearance of the film rights sale, saying a charity doing a large business transaction with its chief executive officer creates “potential for funny business.” Another legal expert stated it could run afoul of IRS regulations precluding a charity from paying “excess benefits” to a key official. NAN took in $6.3 million in donations for 2017, the year before the film rights transaction.
NAN’s major sources of income as of 2018 are reported to be large corporations such as AT&T, Walmart, Verizon, and McDonald’s. Investigating NAN’s corporate supporters ten years earlier, the New York Post revealed several instances (three involving large automobile companies) in which NAN had staged protests against major corporations and then subsequently received regular donations from those same businesses, leading one conservative corporate watchdog to assert NAN’s behavior was “quite clearly a shakedown operation.” A 2015 lawsuit by a cable entrepreneur against Comcast and Time Warner alleged a similar claim – that the media companies were donating to NAN in return for favorable reports that a merger of the cable giants would not harm minority-owned businesses.
Alleged Mafia Ties
In April 2014, muckraking website The Smoking Gun (TSG) posted the results of a lengthy investigation of Sharpton’s history as a confidential FBI informant regarding the New York underworld, which started in the early 1980s. The report was based on several hundred pages of documents released by the FBI in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, interviews with law enforcement officials, and TSG’s own interview with Sharpton. TSG’s conclusion was that “by 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.”
The report asserts the assistance Sharpton provided to federal law enforcement began after a meeting in which an undercover FBI agent (posing as drug dealer) discussed a cocaine sale with Sharpton, secretly recording the encounter. After the agent proposed to sell several kilos to an associate of Sharpton, and offered Sharpton a 10 percent commission, Sharpton says of his associate “If he’s gonna do it, he’ll do it much more than that.”
Confronting Sharpton with the recordings, TSG reports federal law enforcement officials implied they would prosecute him for conspiring to purchase narcotics if he did not assist them as an informant. He eventually did cooperate extensively, helping to record for the FBI his own arranged meetings with their criminal suspects.
Sharpton denies he became an informant so as to avoid prosecution, and asserts that he was in no danger of being charged with a crime, telling another interviewer two years later: “They [the FBI] tried to entrap me on tape—and by their admission, they didn’t—to commit a crime.”
TSG reports the staged cocaine sale was not the only questionable business deal the FBI knew about before presenting Sharpton with the opportunity to become an informant:
“At one point before he was “flipped,” Sharpton participated in a mob scheme to create a business front that would seek a share of lucrative Con Edison set-asides intended for minority-owned businesses. That deal, which involved garbage collection contracts, cratered when the power company determined that Sharpton’s silent partner was Genovese captain Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello.”