Nothing much surprises us anymore about the charmed life of Reverend Al Sharpton, but even he must have wondered in recent weeks just how he gets away with it all. Hanging at the White House with Mike Bloomberg. The governor, David Paterson, launching his comeback rally at Sharpton’s National Action Network.
But it wasn’t all good news: the Federal Election Commission levied $285,000 in civil penalties against Sharpton’s 2004 presidential campaign, the largest fine ever against a presidential candidate. That’s on top of $200,000 in matching funds the FEC required him to return.
Another person might be embarrassed by that kind of penalty, but Sharpton gloated, celebrating it as a victory of sorts in his negotiations with the FEC. “I think this completely vindicates our campaign staff from the allegations that they were willfully doing things wrong,” the reverend declared.
He may have had reason to be smug. The Voice learned some startling things by looking more carefully at the FEC’s agreement with Sharpton…
A November audit found that Sharpton had received $497,303 in prohibited contributions, which he was then ordered to refund. But his representatives negotiated a “conciliation agreement” that instead allowed him to refund only $200,615 – and $181,115 of that to his own non-profit.
Of the $285,000 civil penalty, $208,000 is charged to his election committee, and $77,000 will be paid by National Action Network (NAN), his nonprofit.
In the agreement, Sharpton admitted that the travel expenses for both NAN and the 2004 campaign committee were charged to the same American Express card, and that because the committee “kept poor records” NAN and other entities, rather than the committee, ended up paying for those expenses. However, unlike the audit, which specified all the refunds were to be paid to the Treasury, the agreement gives Sharpton the option of refunding the original contributors – one of which is NAN, which is to be refunded $181,115.
The conciliation agreement as well as the press release issued by the FEC did not specify whether the $181,115 paid by NAN ($107,615 in payments for American Express bills and $73,500 in payments to vendors) was to be refunded by the election committee back to NAN or would be given to the Treasury. The FEC says the choice of paying the Treasury is offered in case the original “contributor(s) won’t cash the checks or cannot be found easily.” That should not be a problem in this case since NAN is Sharpton’s own company. He found it in 1991 and is the only person on the organization’s payroll. Judith Ingram, a press officer for the FEC, tells the Voice that the FEC is “not making a determination on who benefits from this transaction.”
When the campaign repays NAN, as agreed to in the agreement, it’s like Sharpton is repaying himself. The money flows from Sharpton, whose income is largely drawn from NAN, to the campaign, which then repays NAN, meaning it goes from one Sharpton pocket to another. But he never has to change his three piece suit.