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The old and new Al Sharpton
Al Sharpton didn't work just as an informant for the FBI. He also provided information to the Brooklyn district attorney's office, a New York State organized-crime task force and prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District.
Nor did he inform only on drug dealers and the mob, as he said last week following disclosures from the website The Smoking Gun. But he also informed on elected black officials, including former Brooklyn Assemb. Al Vann, former Bronx councilman Wendell Foster, Brooklyn Rep. Major Owens and civil rights firebrand Sonny Carson.
And he did not become a government informant because his life was threatened as he maintained last week. It was because the FBI had a tape of him revealing his interest in a planned drug deal.
These facts come from a series of stories in New York Newsday that appeared in January 1988 that included a two-hour interview with Sharpton. The stories were reported by Bob Drury, now a freelance writer; Bob Kessler, a veteran law enforcement reporter; Richard Esposito, now senior executive producer for NBC News' investigative unit; and the late Mike McAlary, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Daily News after exposing the police torture of Abner Louima.
Using race to attract attention and as a shield to deflect criticism, Sharpton has become a political power-broker, playing a role in virtually every New York City mayoral election in the past 25 years.
His notable lack of support for black mayoral candidate Bill Thompson helped Bill de Blasio get elected mayor last year. Sharpton's longtime spokeswoman, Rachel Noerdlinger, is now the chief of staff for de Blasio's wife, Chirlane.
Over the years, people -- including the late Mayor Ed Koch -- have talked and written about "the new Sharpton," saying he has changed and matured. Yet he refuses to apologize for his anti-Semitic words and actions during the Crown Heights riots or for his role in the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, in which he accused an assistant Dutchess County prosecutor of raping Brawley.
That he now hosts a cable TV program and can lead race-based demonstrations in the Trayvon Martin case while reporting on them reflect his unique status and the state of journalism.
That elected officials like de Blasio, Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama honor him as a champion of civil rights speaks to the cynicism of politicians and their political priorities.
Here now are excerpts from the 1988 NY Newsday stories that first disclosed his role as a government informant. You judge where the old Sharpton ends and new Sharpton begins.
According to the stories, Sharpton came to the attention of the FBI during its investigation of Don King's boxing empire in the early 1980s. Believing Sharpton was close to King, the FBI tried to implicate him in a drug sting and to force him to cooperate. Sharpton decided to cooperate after being videotaped, discussing a drug deal with undercover FBI agent Victor Quintana, who was posing as a rich South American trying to break into the boxing promotion business.
"The reason he [Sharpton] was not indicted for criminal activity was that he did cooperate with the bureau to a limited extent . . . in the King investigation," NY Newsday reported, quoting a law enforcement source. " 'He was in a Catch-22 situation . . . You can talk jail time and put the fear of God in some guys, and that's what happened with Al,' said the source. '. . . The tape was played and he saw himself in living color. And then, without a lot of prompting, he realized his position and from that point on, he cooperated.' "
NY Newsday also reported that Sharpton then began "working in a multi-tiered investigation" by Andrew Maloney, then the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, but that he did not tell the FBI. In his interview with Newsday, "Sharpton said he offered to work as an informant for the Eastern District in developing cases, but insisted he would only work to convict people who were hurting the black community . . .
" 'This was a whole different thing I was dealing in. Maloney's office was [into] elections, drugs and something else. The elections were Brooklyn elections and this is some stuff that I can prove that there's been a ring that involves Vann and Owens misusing 2,000 votes. . . .
" 'I went down to meet with the Eastern [district], I called for a meeting and said I had information on some election fraud. I had information on Al Vann and Major Owens being involved in a vote ring [scheme] -- information on drugs in the community, information on the 77th Precinct. I didn't get that one, obviously someone else got there first -- and I want to talk to somebody. They said, 'Okay, we can work together.' "
Vann, who was elected an assemblyman in the 1970s, won a City Council seat in 2001 and retired in 2013. Apparently nothing came of Sharpton's information about Vann.
As for Owens, Sharpton told NY Newsday: "Major Owens once offered me a bribe. Owens offered me a job not to run against him in 1978." Asked who he reported the alleged bribe to, Sharpton said: " ' Eugene Gold, who didn't process it." Apparently nothing came of Sharpton's information about Owens.
According to NY Newsday, "Sharpton also agreed, sources said, to help gather information against . . . the Rev. Wendell Foster and Sonny Carson. Although Sharpton denied that he was working on a case involving black leaders, several of the sources said he was providing information on what they said appeared to show an extortion-like attempt by Foster . . ."
Foster, the first elected black official in the Bronx, served as a councilman for 24 years. Apparently, nothing came of Sharpton's information about Foster.
"It's not just a little lie, it's the biggest lie of his life," Foster said of Sharpton to NY Newsday at the time.
He added: "I challenge him to meet me in Madison Square Garden and take a lie-detector test and have injections of truth serum so the whole world can see who is telling the truth."
Foster retired in 2001. His daughter, Helen Foster, now holds his seat.