Frank Watkins is an unusual white man. Way back in 1969, he began working with young Jesse Jackson, helping to create Operation PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition, then spearheading Jackson’s historic 1984 and 1988 presidential runs. More recently, he ran Jesse Jackson Jr.’s congressional campaigns and joined his Washington staff. Watkins agreed last march to assume control of Al Sharpton’s presidential campaign only after Sharpton said he’d support the human rights constitutional amendments that Watkins and Jackson Jr. had proposed in their book, A More Perfect Union.
In a wide-ranging interview, however, Watkins said that he had no idea that Sharpton, whom he has known since the ’70s and who calls him “Uncle Frank,” was quietly turning the reins of his campaign over to Watkins’s parallel opposite, Roger Stone, the infamous Republican dirty-tricks operative. Watkins recalls getting a press inquiry about Stone’s possible involvement and fiercely denying it. When he asked Sharpton about Stone, the Rev said “he knew him and talked to him” but dismissed any notion that he was involved in the campaign. “I said we should have nothing to do with this ultra-right-wing sleazeball,” said Watkins. “I would’ve left the campaign that day if I knew he had anything to do with it.”
Watkins knew some of Stone’s sordid history: exposed in the Watergate scandal for infiltrating the McGovern campaign; registered as the agent for Ferdinand Marcos and a Bahamian prime minister alleged to be involved in the drug trade; partnered with Lee Atwater, who conceived the Willie Horton race-baiting commercials for the Bush 1988 presidential campaign. Stone has been a player in virtually every major GOP scandal, from aiding the contras to the mob shutdown of the Miami/Dade County canvassing board during the 2000 recount. And he’d never been involved in a Democratic campaign, vowing publicly: “You can’t work both sides of the street.”
Sharpton did not tell Watkins about the Gallagher’s lunch he’d had with Stone in early March (see “Sleeping With the GOP,” February 4-10), when their political relationship began. He did tell Watkins from the beginning that he was planning to bring Charles Halloran into the campaign when Halloran finished managing a Bermuda parliamentary campaign that summer, indicating that Halloran would do “advance and infrastructure work” under Watkins. Sharpton accurately described Halloran as a Clinton operative from the 1992 campaign, but said nothing about Halloran’s more recent connections to Stone, including Stone’s installation of him in both the Bermuda campaign and the 2002 gubernatorial effort of Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano. Neither did Sharpton reveal that Stone had urged him to hire Halloran as campaign manager, and had introduced him to Halloran.
By September, Halloran, having completed his attempt to put the white-led United Bermuda Party back in power, was in New York, working with Sharpton. Watkins, who says he’d been “slaving” for Sharpton from 7 a.m. to midnight out of his Washington home, virtually without pay, was shocked that as soon as Halloran came on, the campaign was opening a Sixth Avenue office. “I didn’t know how we were going to pay for it,” says Watkins.
Sharpton’s profligate spending had already “disgusted” Watkins, who found his excesses—including “high-life” stays at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas ($3,264), the Mandarin Oriental in Miami ($3,645), and Four Seasons in Los Angeles ($7,343)—”completely out-of-bounds.” While Sharpton was reserving the most expensive suites for two aides and himself, Watkins had only collected two weeks of pay and run up $13,944 in travel and other expenses that had gone unreimbursed (the campaign still owes him $55,111 in combined salary and expenses). Halloran was also suddenly bringing in a two-man consulting company for field operations, and Elizebeth Burke as a scheduler, introducing Watkins to all three.
The mystery about how all this would be paid for was soon solved, through the National Action Network (NAN), Sharpton’s long-standing nonprofit. Halloran told Watkins: “There’s no money in the campaign, but money is pouring into NAN. We have to figure out a way of doing what we have to do with the money we have.” NAN would principally pay Burke, and the consultants, in an apparent end run around federal election law and nonprofit regulations. Unbeknownst to Watkins, Stone was pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into NAN.
Watkins had tried to be a stickler about which costs should be billed to NAN and which to the campaign, a legal issue that has now taken the form of a complaint officially filed last week by a conservative Washington group, the National Legal and Policy Center. But now, as Halloran arrived and Stone’s grip on the Sharpton organization became viselike, money was rushing through the back door. Watkins, meanwhile, was broke. He said to Sharpton and Halloran that he had to get a $5,000 check immediately. Days passed.
When the bookkeeper told Watkins that Halloran had finally approved a $5,000 payment to him and a simultaneous $5,000 payment to an ex-girlfriend of Halloran’s who’d done next to nothing in the campaign, he said to himself, “Who’s Halloran to approve my payment?” It was clear to Watkins that he was no longer in charge. He quit and went back to Jackson Jr. Soon thereafter, Junior endorsed Howard Dean. Though Watkins believes he’d worked loyally and at great expense to himself for Sharpton, the Rev has turned on him, assailing him as a saboteur in last week’s Voice.
The truth is that at a pivotal point in Sharpton’s career, months before his first presidential primaries, he chose Roger Stone and the dozen associates Stone brought to the campaign, over Watkins and all his rainbow history. He did this in part because of the money that came with Stone. Not only was Stone subsidizing the operation through NAN; he provided critical help in putting together Sharpton’s still-pending submission for federal matching funds, helping in Florida, Virginia, and D.C. to push Sharpton over the $5,000 contribution threshold needed in 20 states.
But some of the Stone-tied work is questionable. In Mississippi, for example, where Sharpton is only $250 over the threshold, there are $2,000 in dubious donations. Glenda Glover is listed twice. Six married couples donated with the same check number, though contributions are supposed to be “individual.” Two executives from a construction company and two employees of a law firm are listed as giving with the same check number, suggesting that corporate donations were made. One of the construction executives, Dr. Tommie Avant, told the Voice that he did not give to Sharpton, though “my company might have.” Lawyer Isaac Byrd said that the second donor listed as employed by his firm, Harold Latham, does not work there, making the fact that Latham’s alleged contribution carried the same check number as Byrd’s even more mysterious. Without Mississippi, Sharpton, whose submission in Illinois was defective on its face, may not qualify for matching funds.
In a Monday interview, Sharpton attempted again to minimize his ties to Stone, contending they only talked once a week or so, though conceding the relationship “might have been a misstep.” He tried, inaccurately, to suggest that everyone from Hillary Clinton to Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile had recommended Halloran. “That’s not up my tree,” says Brazile. “I’m a real D.” Halloran will only talk about one issue, insisting that “not a dime of NAN money” had come into the campaign, bypassing the actual allegation, which is that NAN funds are being used outside the campaign to cover some of its costs.
Research assistance: Andrew Burtless, Tommy Hallissey, Adam Hutton, Christine Lagorio, Brian O’Connor, Catherine Shu, and Jessie Singer