Politics & Policy

The First-Class, Five-Star Rev

( Andrew Burton/Getty)
Al Sharpton demands the best when he speaks at public colleges.

When he speaks at public colleges and universities, Al Sharpton flies first-class, stays in upscale hotels, travels to events in a chauffeured vehicle, and often brings a bodyguard or aide with him. He makes these demands on taxpayer-funded institutions, despite owing as much as $4.5 million in unpaid taxes and penalties.

“In terms of travel, Rev. Sharpton travels first class on flights and will require a large black SUV for transportation and, if the trip requires lodging, he will require a suite in a four/five star hotel,” wrote Sharpton’s assistant, Abyssinia Tirfe, in an August 14, 2014, e-mail to Michigan State University (MSU) obtained by National Review. “Also, Rev. Sharpton travels with [an] aide who will require [an] economy ticket and a standard hotel room (if needed).”

The records show MSU assented to these requirements and began arranging them, even e-mailing a travel agent to book a $1,469.70 first-class flight and reserving a suite. But an MSU spokesman says Sharpton ultimately covered his own travel for this particular trip. It’s unclear why.

A few weeks earlier, Ohio State University (OSU) and Columbus State Community College (CSCC) had together provided Sharpton with first-class airfare from New York City to Columbus, which cost $1,552.20. They also paid for a coach flight and hotel room for Sharpton’s bodyguard. A sport-utility vehicle and chauffeur cost an additional $253.80. Between lodging and room service, Sharpton also ran up a $358.50 bill for a one-night stay at the Westin Hotel in Columbus.

Such VIP accommodations aren’t typical for speakers on campus. OSU “had to put in special requests for the Black SUV, first-class ticket and a suite for Rev. Sharpton (oppose[d] to a room),” wrote Larry Williamson Jr., director of OSU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, in an e-mail to Sharpton’s assistant. “These are 3 exceptions that are not standard university requests.”

At $5,000, the MSU sponsors who covered the February event got a deeply discounted rate on Sharpton’s speech, other correspondence revealed. In January, OSU and CSCC together paid Sharpton $25,000 for two speaking events — and even that is half off the reverend’s usual $50,000 rate, e-mail records say. Altogether, in 2015, Sharpton has earned at least $30,000 in speaking fees at publicly funded colleges and universities, so far as can be determined from public records.

CSCC declined to comment on the appropriateness of VIP accommodations for a significant tax debtor. OSU’s spokesman, Gary Lewis, says the university requires speakers to fill out tax forms, reporting all payment to the government. “We do not check the tax liabilities of speakers as this is not our duty. . . . It is on the individual to ensure they are compliant to the law,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail.

Records from various colleges show that Sharpton’s team meticulously manages his speaking events. Corresponding with MSU about a promotional flyer, Sharpton’s assistant requested that the university “please capitalize president on the description line for Rev. Sharpton,” presumably referring to his position as president of the nonprofit National Action Network.

And when Sharpton spoke at Central State University (CSU) last September, Bishop Bobby Hilton, the president of the Greater Cincinnati National Action Network chapter, coordinated closely with the school to plan the event, requesting a chance to inspect the speaking site beforehand. But Hilton’s team “cancelled a couple times on me,” one college official wrote, describing herself in the e-mail as “totally exhausted.”

The day before the event, Hilton sent detailed requests on behalf of Sharpton, asking for “six chairs on stage and a podium,” in addition to “the entire front row reserved.” He also wanted reserved parking for some of Sharpton’s special guests, including the family of John Crawford.

“Water and juice in the green room would be great,” Hilton wrote, also noting after his inspection: “The men’s restroom adjacent to the green room did not have any paper.”

Sharpton did not charge CSU for the speech, as he was already in town for another event.

Various records also reveal that Sharpton has created a new corporate entity, RAS Industries Inc. (New York does not require entities to report their officers or directors, making it difficult to track corporate stakeholders.) An earlier NR investigation found that all of Sharpton’s other known for-profit entities had been dissolved in at least one jurisdiction for failure to pay taxes or properly file tax records.

Sharpton formed RAS Industries Inc. in August 2014, according to records from the New York Department of State’s Division of Corporations. The new entity shares an address with National Action Network, Sharpton’s nonprofit, which also owes $819,000 in unpaid tax liabilities, according to the organization’s most recent tax filings.

That doesn’t stop him from taking honoraria from taxpayer-funded institutions, and getting them to foot the bill for his exacting taste in travel and accommodations.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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