Civil-rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton worked with the FBI in the 1980s, Sharpton admitted during a press conference Tuesday. However, Sharpton's confession fell way short of confirming the bulk of what was reported Monday in a huge story at The Smoking Gun, which reported that Sharpton became a paid mob informant after being caught up in an undercover sting.
Instead, Sharpton claims he voluntarily helped the FBI to spur investigations into drug-dealing in black communities, and helped the agency fight the exploitation of black artists in the recording industry.
According to the report, Sharpton operated under the moniker CI-7 — criminal informant 7 — and smuggled recording devices into meetings with members of the mafia, including a member of the Genovese crime family. Apparently, Sharpton's response to reports he also recorded a member of the infamous Gambino crime family, was cagey: "I'm not saying yes, I'm not saying no."
The Smoking Gun report paints a different picture. In particular, the report is dubious of Sharpton's claim that he acted as a concerned and valiant citizen helping his community.
If Sharpton’s account is to be believed, he was simply a concerned citizen who voluntarily (and briefly) joined arm-in-arm with federal agents, perhaps risking peril in the process. The other explanation for Sharpton’s cooperation--one that has uniformly been offered by knowledgeable law enforcement agents--presents the reverend in a less noble light. Worried that he could face criminal charges, Sharpton opted for the path of self-preservation and did what the FBI asked. Which is usually how someone is compelled to repeatedly record a gangster discussing murder, extortion, and loan sharking.
Sharpton is sticking to the more virtuous story — that in his efforts to promote fairness towards the black community in the music industry, he ran up against organized crime and corruption, and offered to help after he became the target of threats. As he told the New York Daily News: "If you're a victim of a threat, you're not an informant — you're a victim trying to protect yourself."
Considering the long, complicated and crucial history of distrust of police and law enforcement in many urban black communities — the same communities which Sharpton's activism, mainly through his National Action Network, has aimed at helping — it's understandable that he'd be particularly annoyed by the claim he cooperated with the FBI in order to escape his own legal troubles.
Amid all the different things about this story which might bother Sharpton, however, there's one glaring personal element that's distressing the 69-year-old Baptist minister — the photos of himself that are now making the rounds, which see Sharpton as an obese, tracksuit-ed young man.