As Al Sharpton ran for mayor of New York City in 1997 and for president in 2003, fires at his offices reportedly destroyed critical financial records, and he subsequently failed to comply with tax and campaign filing requirements.
The first fire began in the early hours of April 10, 1997, in a hair-and-nail salon one floor below Sharpton’s campaign headquarters at 70 West 125th Street. From the start, investigators deemed the fire “suspicious” because of “a heavy volume of fire on arrival” and because many of the doors remained unlocked after hours, according to the New York Fire Department’s fire-and-incident report.
Top city officials, including then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, said initial suspicions centered on the hair-and-nail salon, not on Sharpton’s campaign, Newsday reported. The fire department sent the case as an arson/explosion investigation to the New York Police Department. By the time of publication of this report, the NYPD had not provided the records requested by National Review Online on December 16, 2014, but it confirmed that the investigation had been closed without an arrest.FDNY’s report references a “flammable liquid,” and firefighters’ photos of the scene show traces of an incendiary puddle. Another photo captures what appears to be a singed rag that someone is holding next to a fuse box, perhaps because that is where it was found. But a 2003 Newsday article says “the 1997 fire started when a curling iron overheated in an adjoining beauty parlor.” NRO could find no other sources referencing a curling iron as the cause, and the fire department’s reports make no mention of it, either.
As the mayoral campaign continued, Sharpton missed tax and campaign disclosure deadlines.
The 1997 fire occurred five days before Tax Day and, the New York Post reported, “just after Sharpton announced that he would open his financial records.” After the fire, Sharpton said he would seek an extension because crucial financial records had been destroyed. It’s unclear whether that extension was granted.
In July 1997, Sharpton also missed the deadline to file his personal financial-disclosure forms with the New York City Conflict of Interests Board, violating a legal requirement and risking a fine of up to $10,000. He said the destruction of records in the fire had prevented him from filing. When Sharpton finally filed a year later, in July 1998 — months after the November 4, 1997 elections — he paid a $100 late fee. It’s unclear what information his filing did or did not contain; in accordance with Section 12-110(f) of the administrative code, the board shredded Sharpton’s financial-disclosure forms more than a decade ago.During the campaign, Sharpton criticized his opponents for having a “penthouse mentality,” calling one a “limousine liberal.” But while his competitors had voluntarily released their income-tax returns to the media, Sharpton had not even filed his yet, much less publicly disclosed them, Newsday noted.
He finally filed his tax returns on August 15, publicly offering only estimates of his earnings that year, which he said were between $50,000 and $60,000.
A New York Daily News report a few weeks later alleged that Sharpton owed $100,000 in overdue federal and state taxes and fines, reportedly prompting him to finally release his tax records. A federal tax lien assessed in 2005 also estimated that Sharpton’s nonprofit, National Action Network, owed more than $15,000 for 1997.
In early September 1997, the New York City Campaign Finance Board cited Sharpton for accepting political contributions in excess of the limits established in the Campaign Finance Act, the New York Daily News reported.
Six years later, on January 23, 2003 — one day after Sharpton filed paperwork to create a presidential exploratory committee — another fire caused heavy damage at National Action Network, located at 1941 Madison Avenue. (The Federal Election Commission (FEC) later determined that Sharpton had actually become a candidate no later than October 2002, although, contrary to law, he had not filed his statement of candidacy until April 2003.)
The battalion chief who responded to the fire initially coded it as suspicious. On the fire-and-incident report, the cause of fire is designated as “NFA [Not Fully Ascertained] — Heat from electrical equipment (Extension Cords).” But by the evening of January 24, the chief fire marshal told the New York Times that “both an eyewitness account and a physical examination by fire marshals point to the cause as accidental.”
Nevertheless, significant oddities surrounded both the fire and the investigation, and the story of the key eyewitness had some holes that were apparently never addressed.
James Kelty, a supervising fire marshal who responded to the 2003 fire, tells NRO he was unexpectedly relieved from the fire investigation. “I was on the fire, and then I wasn’t on the fire; I was on the fire scene, and then I was no longer at the fire scene,” he says, adding that it was unusual.
When NRO told him that the investigative report was only six pages long and accompanied by 38 photographs, Kelty said: “Big fires and fires involving prominent people are generally much more exhaustive. Thirty-eight photos are a drop in the bucket, especially given Sharpton’s notoriety and given the fact that he was running for U.S. president.”
According to the fire-and-incident report, a maintenance man named J. D. Livingston discovered the fire. (His name is listed in the report as both Joseph Dennis Livingstone and Joseph D. Livingston.)
Livingston, who immigrated to the United States from Guyana, died in March 2014. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement confirmed to NRO that he was living in the U.S. illegally after overstaying his visa, though it’s unclear when it expired. Carl Redding, who worked with Sharpton but publicly criticized him after a personal falling out, tells me Sharpton paid Livingston under the table. “I always heard that he was unofficially homeless and ended up living at the [National Action] Network,” Redding says.
Another source close to Sharpton described Livingston as a good man who was fiercely loyal to, and heavily dependent on, Sharpton. He said he saw Sharpton pay Livingston in cash, and also alleged that Livingston was living in the office of National Action Network.
In an interview with NRO, Sharpton says Livingston “did some side work with me, and that’s all that I’m willing to say about someone deceased.” He adds: “I didn’t pay anyone under the table. Under what table?” Sharpton says Livingston’s wages were reported and covered in a tax repayment. He refused to show NRO any proof, saying he would “absolutely not” give records for “someone who’s deceased and can’t give permission.” As for Livingston living at National Action Network, Sharpton says, “not to my knowledge.”
According to the fire-and-incident report, Livingston’s interview with fire investigators occurred “in the presence of his attorney, Michael Hardy,” who is also Sharpton’s longtime lawyer. Kelty, the fire marshal who was at the scene initially, tells me that it’s routine for fire marshals to speak with maintenance men or superintendents to collect information about the building. He also said it’s critically important for fire investigators to speak to the first person at the scene of a fire — in this case, Livingston.
Kelty adds, “I could probably count on my hand — and have fingers left over — how many times I have talked to a superintendent or maintenance worker and had an attorney there. It’s just extremely unusual.”
The FDNY report recounts the story Livingston told the fire investigators in the first of two interviews:
[Livingston] states that he is an employee of the Reverend Al Sharpton and arrived at work at approx. 7:55 a.m. He states that the downstairs doors were unlocked when he arrived and that wasn’t unusual. He then went upstairs where he unlocked the door to the office. He then entered and immediately locked the door behind him. He states that he went down the hall to check that area and turn on the lights. He then went back into the reception area and entered the Main Speaking Hall to plug in his cell phone. He then went through the reception area to Rev. Sharpton’s Office to check it and turn the lights on. He said that when he left his office, he closed the door. He then states that he went to the bathroom area that was down the hall to start replenishing the bathroom supplies. While doing that he said he heard a noise coming from the reception room and thought it might be Rev. Sharpton’s secretary (Sylvia Matthews) knocking on the door. He states he checked the office entrance door, but no one was there. He then noticed smoke and fire on the floor next to the reception desk. He then went into the stairwell and began banging on the gate that leads upstairs to let whoever was up there know that there was a fire. He then went downstairs to warn them in the restaurant and asked [cook] Rapica Persaud to call 911.
A couple of potential inconsistencies stick out: First, Livingston says it “wasn’t unusual” for the downstairs doors to be unlocked — even though the office was in a relatively high-crime neighborhood, and even though Livingston in the rest of his account describes unlocking and relocking a door within the office.
Livingston’s account also puts him in the reception area where at least four times he says the fire started. Livingston told the cook downstairs to call 911 at approximately 8:15 a.m., the report says. The report places the incident time as 8:29; the FDNY prides itself on arriving at fires within minutes of a 911 call, and the report makes no mention of any delay in response.
In other words, Livingston’s account suggests that he must have caught the fire almost immediately, given that he had been back and forth through the reception area so frequently that morning. The report also makes no mention of Livingston’s trying to extinguish the fire.
Both the photos and the report indicate that the blaze had grown massive — in discussing them, Kelty described it as a “well-progressed, rapidly advanced fire” — by the time firefighters arrived. According to the fire report, the first firefighter upstairs saw “the second floor entrance door was left open with heavy fire showing in the reception room. He then states that he immediately closed the door to contain the fire while his company was stretching the line. He also states that they then knocked the fire down in the reception area and then proceeded to the main hall where there was also a heavy volume of fire.”
Discussing the interviews with both Livingston and the first firefighter on the scene, Kelty says: “These interviews are not consistent. Usually, any maintenance person or any super, if an incident like this did occur — they notice that there’s some kind of fire by the reception area. They’d normally tell you they’d rush to try to get something to put the fire out, still call the fire department, but try to extinguish the fire. Regardless, we’re normally there around four to five minutes after the transmission of a fire alarm, and we have a heavy volume of fire upon arrival at National Action Network. That’s not normal fire behavior. To me, it strikes me as odd. It doesn’t mean that could not have happened, but it’s unusual.”
Another source close to Sharpton says:
It’s very fishy. It doesn’t make sense, and it never made sense. The fact that Livingston was living there — I think probably Sharpton or somebody in that camp said, “Just make this a fire.” After the fires, there was a lot of discussion about, “We can’t do this,” asking for delays because our paperwork was there in the filing cabinets, and they allegedly got destroyed. A lot of pertinent paperwork and accounting stuff was there. Now, everyone who knew J.D. knew that he was a great individual and a nice human being, but I also think he was desperate, in the sense that he needed Sharpton to survive. And that makes me concerned that if you have that kind of reliance on an individual, maybe things went awry.
(By his death, Livingston had risen to become a producer for Gary Byrd’s radio show and a beloved community activist, known for ending conversations with “thank you for your kindness,” according to affectionate obituaries and tributes online.)
Though the chief fire marshal later told reporters the investigators had ruled out arson, suspicions still abounded in the neighborhood, according to news accounts.
“The fact that a day after [Sharpton] announces he’s running for president his place burns down?” one National Action Network member told the New York Times. “I don’t buy it. They couldn’t sell me on that.”
“It was accidentally on purpose,” the New York Times quoted another neighbor saying, adding that his comments “echo[ed] the sentiments of nearly every person interviewed near the burned-out headquarters of the National Action Network.”
Another bystander said, “I just have the feeling that something more is going on. I don’t believe the excuse they gave. Even if it was the power cord, someone could have hooked up the cord to set the place on fire.”
It’s unclear whether most of these spectators thought the fire was an attack against Al Sharpton or an inside job.
Even Sharpton himself seemed to hint at arson, according to news reports of a church service he held at the Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church days after the fire.
“They can burn up buildings, but they didn’t burn down the dream, and the dreamers are still here,” Sharpton said, according to a Newsday report. “It will take more than a fire to in any way quell the desire we have to give new leadership and new direction to this country.”
Newsday also noted that after the sermon, “Sharpton said he had raised $12,000 in cash and an additional $13,000 in pledges.” At a January 25 rally, SEIU Local 1199 donated $25,000 and supplied office space for National Action Network, The Final Call reported, and the Nation of Islam also gave $1,000. “Sharpton raised several thousand dollars,” the article says.
As National Action Network raised money to rebuild, Sharpton continued his presidential campaign, violating several laws, many of which were related to poor record-keeping and book-keeping, according to an April 2009 FEC conciliation agreement.
The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) filed two complaints with the FEC, helping trigger an investigation into Sharpton’s presidential campaign.
The FEC later found that both National Action Network and other entities had illegally paid for travel expenses incurred by Sharpton’s campaign, in part because “Sharpton 2004 kept poor records of its activities and expenditures.”
The FEC’s conciliation agreement says that $65,000 in campaign expenses charged to Sharpton’s personal credit card came from unknown sources. It also says an additional $209,677 in unreported in-kind contributions came from Sharpton’s for-profit entity Rev. Al’s Productions. (In 2004, Sharpton told the New York Times that Rev. Al’s Productions was a subsidiary of another one of his entities, Rev. Al’s Communications.)
Rev. Al’s Productions, as well as another company called Sharpton Media Group, were “two unincorporated wholly owned, sole proprietorships founded by Sharpton” that “serves as vehicles for Sharpton’s entrepreneurial activities and has no staff, maintains no overhead, and pays all of their profits to Sharpton in the form of dividends, which he claims as income in his personal tax filings,” according to the conciliation agreement.
So who was paying Rev. Al’s Communications money that eventually ended up at the campaign? That’s unclear, because Sharpton’s lawyer Michael Hardy said that the fire had destroyed honorarium records for the company.
The National Legal and Policy Center suggested in its complaint to the FEC that some of the money may have come from two affluent Sharpton campaign supporters, La-Van Hawkins and his wife, Wendy. The FEC later determined that, in addition to giving the maximum $2,000-per-person donation, Wendy and La-Van had flown Sharpton to Atlanta on a private jet owned by their company, Hawkins Food Group, and thrown him a lavish fundraising event there, featuring crab cakes, beef tenderloin, and $200 bottles of Cristal. The FEC determined that this amounted to more than $10,750 in prohibited in-kind contributions from the Hawkins and Hawkins Food Group.
Though the FEC did not address this issue in its conciliation agreement, the NLPC also claimed that Hawkins Food Group had given Sharpton a $25,000 consulting fee before the fire. And in 2008, La-Van Hawkins told the New York Post from a South Dakota federal prison, where he’d been sent for attempted bribery, that he had given both a $25,000 annual consulting fee to Sharpton and “over $1 million” to National Action Network.
“There was nothing disclosed by the Sharpton campaign to describe the type of ‘consulting’ Sharpton may have provided Mr. Hawkins’ company in return for the $25,000 payment,” the NLPC wrote. “Perhaps the contract and supporting documents were lost in the fire. . . . The payment by an individual who subsequently became a major donor and then some to Sharpton’s campaign is all the more questionable given the statement by the Sharpton campaign that records for some of his ‘consulting’ work were destroyed in a fire which also destroyed other records about honoraria and income earned by Sharpton.”
New York State eventually dissolved Rev. Al’s Communications in 2009 for failure to pay taxes. From its 1999 founding to 2002, the for-profit entity either failed to file or failed to pay taxes, and by January 2003, the company had managed to run up more than $226,000 in tax debt, according to federal liens. In 2002, the year before the fire, New York had also dissolved Sharpton’s other company, Raw Talent, for tax problems; it owed $589,453 in federal taxes and $4,834 in state taxes, according to a 2007 lien and New York tax warrants. Meanwhile, Delaware dissolved Sharpton Media Group in 2007 for failure to file tax records, though the entity remains active in New York despite state corporate law. National Action Network’s annual tax filings show Sharpton Media Group had loaned the nonprofit tens of thousands of dollars.
As Sharpton ran for president, he submitted several FEC filings late. One of them, filed in July 2003, revealed that the IRS had opened a federal tax audit into Sharpton, examining his finances throughout the 1990s, according to a July 12, 2003, New York Times report. It was not the first time Sharpton had been under scrutiny; in 1990, he was acquitted of 67 counts, including larceny and fraud. Three years later, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after failing to file state income taxes, with the state dropping two felony charges in exchange, the New York Times reported.
The IRS investigation lasted for years, and Sharpton continued to cite the fires in connection with it, according to a New York Daily News report. The paper noted that “Sharpton and [National Action Network] owe several million dollars in back taxes, but Sharpton attributed the problem to a fire at his Harlem headquarters that destroyed many records.”
By 2008, the IRS dropped its criminal probe, reaching a settlement with Sharpton and his entities of “between $2 million and $9 million,” the New York Daily News reported.
Based on the NLPC complaints, the FEC eventually reached two conciliation agreements with Sharpton. It fined him $5,500 for failing to file his statements of candidacy on time, and an additional $208,000 for violating campaign-finance laws by “failing to file complete and accurate reports disclosing all of the Committee’s receipts and expenditures” and “knowingly accepting excessive and prohibited in-kind contributions.” It also fined National Action Network and Sharpton $77,000 for making prohibited contributions to his campaign. The FEC’s latter conciliation agreement notes that it “does not establish or mean that any of the violations were knowing and willful.”
Sharpton tells NRO that as part of the settlement with both the IRS and the FEC, “whatever was lost [in the fires] was reconstructed through bank records and whatever else they required. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have made an agreement.” The IRS settlement is not public record, and the conciliation agreement makes no mention of records lost in the fire and subsequently reconstructed.
Sharpton also says he did not recall whether he received insurance payments for either fire. “Whatever we got, we got,” he says. “I have no idea.”
But some of Sharpton’s former confidants still have questions about the fires and the records they destroyed.
“It was always suspicious — it was always suspicious, to this day,” says Carl Redding, the former Sharpton staffer who has publicly criticized him. He adds: “All I could do was just go by whatever the police reports would say. . . . It always seemed like it just died out. There was never any serious questions raised about what happened” in both fires.
Then again, it has happened before that two accidental fires hit the same establishment, says Joe Sesniak, a public-information officer for the International Association of Arson Investigators. From just fire-and-incident reports, he says, it’s hard to draw a conclusion.
“Some people, if they didn’t have bad luck, they’d have no luck at all,” Sesniak says. “But sometimes, well, it’s not really a coincidence. Knowing what caused the fire depends on the nature of the investigation, the level of training, and the experience of the investigators.”
So is Sharpton simply unlucky? “I would say,” Sharpton tells NRO, “that you could speak to people that would certainly, whoever they are, could have their views.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center.