On a New High, Sharpton Hits a New Low
On the eve of the publication of this story, The Village Voice received an extraordinary letter signed by the two attorneys most closely associated with Reverend Al Sharpton, Michael Hardy and Sanford Rubenstein. Promising "to pursue all legal remedies" if the story appeared, the letter spelled out what it said was "a false allegation" involving Sharpton's wife of 23 years, Kathy Sharpton, noting that the Voice had "been informed" of this allegation by "several individuals." Then it warned that publishing "any story which talks about false allegations of Rev. Sharpton and not false allegations regarding Ms. Sharpton would demonstrate your actionable malice towards Rev. Sharpton."
In an effort to protect himself from the scandal detailed here, Al Sharpton is apparently willing to use his wife as a shield, even if it means making her a target. He has had his highs in this cityhis organization of the Diallo protests in Giuliani time, for examplebut now, at this moment of his greatest national prominence, he has sunk to a new low.
This story will not examine any allegation about Kathy Sharpton, though sources close to Sharpton, directly and through others, did "inform" us of one. This is the story of Al Sharpton gone wild.
In the lawyers' letter, Sharpton reveals that he has not lived with his wife and two daughters in their enormous Brooklyn mansion since April 2003, when the couple agreed to "terminate their marriage." This flies in the face of repeated claims during his year and a half of presidential hooplaespecially one as recently as July 2004, when he rebutted a Daily News item about an alleged other woman by insisting that "Kathy has been my rock and always will be." The self-described "grassroots activist" now says through lawyers that he "moved" to the luxurious Helmsley Carlton, though he told reporters who caught him there earlier this year that it was merely an easy place to lay his head while on the campaign trail. But this story is not about a pol concealing an unraveled marriage until a press announcement of separation exactly two days after the election.
Sharpton's is a saga of hypocrisy more than hanky-panky. It is the tale of how he helped engineer the demise of his mentor, Jesse Jackson, who had an affair with the executive director of his nonprofit organization and showered her with benefits, even while Sharpton was sending every signal to those around him that he was doing the same. Of course, Sharpton denies that he had anything to do with the fusillade of baby and other stories fired at Jackson in the beginning of 2001. And his lawyers began their December 2 letter with the declaration that any claim that the Sharpton separation "was based upon any extra-marital affairs or infidelity on the part of Rev. Sharpton is false," as is the "rumor" that he had one.
This story will spotlight four individuals close to Sharpton who helped expose Jackson, instantly catapulting Sharpton to the top ranks of African American leadership. (See "What Al Did to Jesse"). While it is virtually impossible to establish that an intimate relationship existed without confirmation from a party, a compelling case can be made that Sharpton appeared to engage in one with Marjorie Harris (also known as Marjorie Fields-Harris), the executive director of his National Action Network and the woman named in two Daily News gossip pieces.
After beginning a Voice phone interview that revolved around the alleged affair, the 40-year-old Harris rushed off the line abruptly without answering questions about it, and never returned a series of Voice messages. Her separate legal letter, signed only by Rubenstein, made no reference to the charge. She did concede that she left her husband of nearly two years in April 2003at the same moment Sharpton left Kathybut insisted that she didn't "know anything about him leaving home."
What does any of it matter? Ironically, with all of this intrigue circulating just beneath the surface, Sharpton has made himself into some sort of national religious figure, asking on Meet the Press just a week ago: "All of us are talking about whether God is on our side. Are we really on God's side?" He and Jerry Falwell have squared off four times on national televisionimmediately before and after the electionas the embodiment of the moral values of their respective parties.
Indeed, after collecting a puny fraction of the delegates that Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm won in their presidential campaigns, Sharpton has miraculously repackaged himself as a combination Spike TV reality star, supposed candidate for the helm of the NAACP, kingmaker within the Democratic National Committee, and telegenic conscience of the left. For New Yorkers who know our most famous reverend well, watching him on display as a post-election ethical compass, representing Democratic values, is the final sick joke in a year when we thought Karl Rove already had the last laugh.
Having been interviewed by the Voice about Harris et al. before his Tim Russert appearance, the usually synthetic Sharpton behaved as if he couldn't get his real life out of his mind. In response to Russert's abortion question, Sharpton inexplicably trailed off into a bizarre monologue about the breakup of his own marriage, which he said had "just ended a couple of years ago," a seeming contradiction in time. Not skipping a beat, he then invoked the name of Marjorie Fields-Harris without so much as identifying his obscure executive director, citing her as an example of how "we" are "building a new party" to, among other things, "protect American values."
This stream of consciousness was designed to promote Harris's behind-the-scenes candidacy for DNC vice chair, but it also suggested that even on Sunday morning's top talk show, Sharpton had a hard time discussing his doomed marriage without mentioning Marjorie Harris. Claiming retroactively that his marriage "ended" two years ago, of course, muddies the waters about what he's been doing since, and five Voice visits to Kathy Sharpton's dark Flatbush home provoked no supporting or contrary information. A visit to Harris's herringbone floored apartment complex at the Heritage at Trump Place"towering over the Hudson River" with its own health spa, pool, gym, salon, interior garden, and theaterearned us the Rubenstein warning letter that a harassment complaint would be filed against us, but she refused to get on the concierge phone.
"If I was a black woman living in a urine-stained apartment in Harlem, you would not be writing this story," Harris told the Voice later in the abbreviated interview that did occur. "You have a problem with a black woman living in a Trump building." She confirmed that she bought a new Cadillac and Mercedes in 2002, but declined to discuss her sources of income, which include her undisclosed salary as Sharpton's top aide at the nonprofit NAN and any earnings from a for-profit political consulting firm she's formed, the Fields-Harris Group.
Strangely enough, it was Falwell in the TV debate who boasted that he operated a home for unwed mothers, an AIDS hospice, an adoption program, and a clinic for drug addicts, all in tiny Lynchburg, Virginia. When he asked if Sharpton was "involved" in even one similar effort, the reverend who's never had a church, or run a substantive social program, changed the subject. Indeed, when Sharpton made the most celebrated speech of his career at the Democratic convention in July, he mentioned the only program NAN pretends to currently runits voter registration campaignthereby managing to work into another prime-time appearance the name of its director, the same Marjorie Harris.
He saluted Barack Obama and Congressman Greg Meeks as well, saying they and Harris were three young black leaders working "in the trenches" who embody "strong family values" and had "to make nothing stretch into something" to "make ends meet." He also mentioned Kathy and the kids, though his longtime aide Dedrick Muhammed says Sharpton took them to a car after the speech and put them on a plane back to NY. He, Harris, and other aides had rooms on the same floor of the convention hotel, and they went to Democratic parties that night.
Harris's registration efforts, by the way, consist largely of an 877 helpline number that simply gives callers with questions NAN's number, an occasional card table at a shopping center, and radio commercials Harris made herself. She didn't even register in New York until August 2001, almost two years after she joined NAN, and the city election board says they do no work with her organization. With so much energy spent on bluster at NAN, there has long been little left for actual programs.
The importance of Sharpton, however, is as symbol. He has surfaced in every major NY race for decades, and it is certain he will attempt to influence the 2005 mayoral, having already claimed in his memoir, Al on America, that he made Mike Bloomberg mayor in 2001. Despite failing to hit double digits in any state primary (he did in DC), he has never cut so grand a national figure, indicating now that he may run for president in 2008 and announcing in September that NAN, the black caucus, and Bill Cosby were launching a campaign to "bring black families together." All this means he should occasionally be held to the same standards routinely applied to other leaders.
The mystery of the Sharpton/Harris relationship starts with her ex-husband, Basil Smikle, who finally got a divorce in September 2003, six months after she left their Harlem apartment on 147th Street. An aide to Senator Hillary Clinton at the time of their marriage in 2001, Smikle now runs his own consulting business. After meeting Harris in Sharpton's office in January 2000 during the Clinton campaign, he proposed to her within two months. But by that September, while preparing for the wedding, he discovered what a close friend of his told the Voice were "e-mails with Sharpton that raised eyebrows." On her personal firstname.lastname@example.org saw a message to Sharpton about how the relationship with Basil wasn't going well. Referring to Sharpton as her "soulmate," the e-mail promised that "things" would be back to normal soon, adding that she loved him. In another e-mail she received on her Palm Pilot, Sharpton made reference to his need to "release bodily fluids."
When Smikle confronted Harris about these e-mails, she convinced him that Sharpton was the aggressor and that she would rebuff him. In fact, the ties between Smikle and her grew as a result of the exchange and they went forward with a May 26 marriage. Simultaneously, on October 3, Sharpton "surprised" Kathy by giving her "the gift she always wanteda church wedding," he told the press. A Las Vegas justice of peace had performed their November 1980 nuptials. The gala, which would be attended by over a thousand guests and include full bridal gear and a Puck Building reception, was initially scheduled for June 3, a week after Harris's wedding. Sharpton's surprise jailing in the Vieques protests in Puerto Rico forced him to postpone it. He was also unexpectedly in jail on Harris's wedding day, though he was not one of the four scheduled presiders and had already decided not to attend, according to another aide. This coincidence, of course, would be followed in 2003 by their simultaneous move-outs.
Smikle's friend says the problems soon reappeared and that "Basil was never comfortable about the relationship between the Rev and Marjorie," convinced in fact that Sharpton "seemed to go out of his way to drive a wedge between them" and that "she never stopped him." They BlackBerried each other deep into the night. They traveled constantly together, always first class and at the most expensive hotels, reaching costs of $4,000 a night. "Black stretch limos with black drivers," conceded Harris snidely, were sent by Rubenstein "often" to the Harlem apartment to "take me wherever I needed to go," a perk that she simply attributed to him being "one of my lawyers."
Though she specifically refused to answer questions about her sudden surfeit of expensive accessories, Smikle noticed a $7,000 Rolex, mink coats, and David Yurman jewels appraised at $1,500 and $4,000. She bought a Caddy at Dick Gidron's Bronx dealership, where NAN did all its business and where the owner, a convicted felon, was one of the Rev's financial supporters, even paying off part of his personal debts. Telling the Voice last Friday that she was still making payments on the car and did not get a discount, she registered and insured it in New York under her own name, and sent it off to North Carolina for her mother. Sharpton was so close to her mother he called her every Sunday night. Smikle did not know she also bought a Mercedes in December 2002 until the dealer called him at home to see if he was happy with it. He could not figure out how she was paying for it all.
Finally, Smikle told her the relationship with Sharpton had to change or he wanted a divorce. He demanded she come clean; she would neither admit nor change anything. She says Rubenstein at first advised her on the divorce and then referred her to famed Long Island attorney Dominic Barbara, who's gone from Joey Buttafuoco to current clients Mike Lohan (father of Lindsay) and Victoria Gotti. Barbara called Sharpton a "good friend" in a brief conversation with the Voice, but did not complete the interview. Smikle represented himself.
Aware of all the allegations detailed in this article, Smikle would only say that he was once "looking forward" to a "long and fruitful relationship with my bride" but that "the issues raised here and more made that impossible." He said he was "very sad" that he had to "spend those years dealing with it" but that "through family and good friends, I have turned away from the past and will keep looking forward."
Tom Morelli, whose apartment at Trump Place is next door to Harris's 15th floor, subletted, half-million-dollar unit, says he saw Sharpton "frequently when Harris first moved into the building," though the Rev claims he's only been there "once or twice." Another 15th floor resident recounted sightings as well, saying she saw him at 9 or 10 p.m. "one night prior to the election." There is "a buzz in the building," she added, about Sharpton "coming in and out and that his administrative assistant lives here." When this tenant asked about it, she got "the wink-wink from the doorman that something was going on." The doorman "has seen him many times," he says. In fact one doorman told us Sharpton had "a girlfriend" there, while a second acknowledged he'd seen him at the building, as has the local dry cleaner. Union employees claim he is seen at night and in the mornings, sometimes the early mornings, in the garage and on the elevators.
Though one resident says Sharpton "gave her a rug and helped her move in," Harris says "my neighbors are liars" and that she's "never seen him lift a box." Morelli contends that she "never leaves the apartment" and plays music so loudly all day that he's had to complain. That squares with Elizabeth Burke's experience at NAN's West 42nd Street office, where she worked as a campaign scheduler last fall. "I never saw her do a full day's work," says Burke. "The most she'd do was two hours. We wouldn't see her for days, even when they weren't traveling. Sometimes they'd both be gone from the office for days and no one would know where they were." Even the scheduler "couldn't ask."
When campaign manager Charles Halloran and she agreed, recalls Burke, that Harris could "no longer travel with the man to events that had nothing to do with NAN," Sharpton "went berserk" at Burke, who had to inform him. "He screamed at me that it was none of my business how he spent his money," Burke says, "and Charles had to step in." After that, NAN did begin to cover some of Harris's travel. "It always had to be a five-star hotel, with a suite for the Rev and two singles for Marjorie and her brother Eddie, who was supposed to be videoing the campaign. If they were on separate floors, he would've screamed." The rooms were exclusively in Sharpton's name, and he would handle the distribution of keys and next-day schedules, three of which were sent to him each night, sometimes very late.
Long after Burke was gone, Sharpton, Harris, and another aide who traveled with them, Rick Wade, wound up with reservations for the same Boston Park Plaza suite on election night. The Voice obtained copies of the bill listing the three in a suite with one bedroom and a pullout bed in a large parlor room. When the Voice reached Wade and asked him what the sleeping arrangements were, he said: "I can't comment on that" and hung up. The room was reserved by the DNC for Sharpton, who insisted on king-size beds.
Yet Sharpton's lawyers contend that he "did not stay at any hotel provided by the DNC" that night and instead stayed at the Boston Harbor Hotel "at his own expense." They even came up with an invoice for $1,950 on Sharpton's credit card for two Harbor rooms and a limo that night, though the DNC was also reimbursing that card to the tune of $51,714 (as well as paying him $35,000 in consulting fees). Whoever was staying at the more glamorous and less politically congested Harbor ate a $65 breakfast the next morning, hard to do for one.
Asked how often she was in the office during the fall of 2003, Harris said she doesn't remember. Asked how often she was in the office the last two weeks, she couldn't remember that either. She says she neither signs checks nor "has ever had anything to do with incoming funds for the network," two of the usual responsibilities of a director. She concedes she only occasionally "visits" NAN's shabby 125th Street office, saying it's too "crowded." She also insists she does no NAN work at Trump Place, even though the voter registration helpline she runs is registered there. The Cole's reverse phone directory lists the voter registration subsidiary, the Truth Hamer Initiative, at her apartment, as does the group's website.
Indeed Harris's NAN workload is so scant that her bio, which she's distributed to various places recently, says she's the "former executive director" of the organization. Sharpton confirmed that in a Voice interview, saying the position "is vacant." But Harris said she has "no idea" why he'd say that and that's she's continuously served in that capacity for five years. Sharpton and she say they are working on a book about the campaign, which they intend to market through an agent, though the most Harris has ever written is a couple of op-ed pieces. Several ex-employees who remain uncritically loyal to Sharpton admit that they can't explain what Harris actually does, or why he publicly promotes her, with one top aide saying he had to leave because of "the appearances of impropriety" between Sharpton and Harris.
The Harris saga is not just a question of sex; it's a window into the dysfunction of Sharpton's universe. NAN's domain name was purchased in September 2003 and no one's ever talked to the company that bought it; they just stopped posting. The Voice sent a donor up to the 125th Street office in December 2003 to make a $25 contribution and the check was never cashed. Sharpton's campaign owes $479,050.72, having stiffed many vendors and staffers, most of them black, just as he and NAN have stiffed everyone from travel agencies to limo companies to the firm that had the title on a $46,880 SUV Sharpton leased from Gidron. The Federal Election Commission even wants its $100,000 in public matching funds back because Sharpton has refused to comply with a subpoena for detailed campaign records. The subpoena involves the over-the-limit expenses billed to Sharpton's credit card to cover Marjorie and Eddie Harris's travel.
The recidivist reinventor has survived so many sordid episodesfrom his days as a confidential FBI informant to the defamation finding against him in the Tawana Brawley case to his suspicious ties this year with a top GOP dirty-tricks operativethat he appears impervious to revelation. He's entertainment. His core, it's said, will never waver. But he's operating now at a higher level and the larger he gets, the more vulnerable to fact he may become. His sidekicks are now whispering secrets about his wife the way they used to about Jackson. This time, he may have gone too far, and not even his magic tongue will keep him on that life-giving screen.
Research assistance: Eric Cantor, Deborah S. Esquenazi, Emily Keller, Eric Magnuson, Ben Reiter, and Daniel Ten Kate.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.