Al Sharpton is no rat

Sharpton talks role as FBI informant
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Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Al Sharpton under new criticism for informing on criminals for FBI in 1980s
  • Louis: This old news shows how far Sharpton has come into political mainstream
  • He says Sharpton was threatened by organized crime members
  • Louis: You don't have to like his politics to see he did what a law-abiding citizen should do

The recent spate of stories about the Rev. Al Sharpton's history as an informant for the FBI don't exactly qualify as breaking news: solid newspaper reports at least a quarter century old, detailing Sharpton's maneuvers at the treacherous intersection of federal agents, violent gangsters, and shady music industry operators. In his autobiography, Sharpton himself writes about the days in the late 1980s when he wore a wire and collected data on criminals for the feds.

But the publication of FBI memos naming Sharpton, (aka Confidential Informant #7) seems jarring because of how far Sharpton has traveled into the political mainstream. Back in the 1980s, he was a street agitator with a relentless hunger for media attention. Today he hosts a top-rated national television show and a three-hour radio talk show that airs in dozens of markets nationwide.

The Sharpton of the 1980s registered on the political radar of City Hall as a nuisance, dismissively dubbed "Al Charlatan" by then-mayor Ed Koch. This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio will speak on the opening day of Sharpton's annual conference, and the keynote address will be delivered by President Barack Obama, who regularly gives Sharpton exclusive interviews and private visits to the White House.

Errol Louis

That's why Sharpton took offense to the disparaging tabloid headlines referring to him as "Rev. Rat" and as a snitch.

"I was not, and am not, a rat because I was not with the rats. I'm a cat," Sharpton told a group of reporters at a news conference, chastising reporters for suggesting that his efforts to help nab criminals were motivated by such things as avoiding prosecution, rather than a genuine civic effort to help law enforcement officials.

Whatever Sharpton's reasons, he did society a favor by helping to expose the outright criminality that was prevalent in the music industry. For decades, crooks had a stranglehold on popular music, according to "Hit Men," Frederic Dannen's 1990, eye-opening book about the hoodlums, artists and executives who routinely resorted to blackmail, extortion, payola and outright violence as business tools.

Among the tales picked up on Sharpton's wire was information on Morris Levy, a legend in the music business who owned nightspots, including Birdland, in New York, and the rights to scores of hit songs.

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Levy, a roughneck from the Bronx, described himself as a boyhood friend of Vincent (The Chin) Gigante, who eventually rose to become boss of the Genovese crime family. Levy had deep financial ties to members of the organization, selling part of one of his record companies to a gangster named Tommy Eboli, who was later shot to death in 1972, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Levy also reportedly set up a friend and enforcer named Nate McCalla with his own record label, called Calla, which made records for soul singers. McCalla was found murdered in a Florida hotel room in 1980.

And according to Sharpton's secret recordings, Levy was in up to his neck with Gigante and the Genovese organization financially, using his legitimate businesses to help the mobsters acquire property and -- allegedly -- move heroin. Levy was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit extortion. He'd arranged the severe beating of a record industry associate who owed money, but wouldn't pay. Levy died of cancer shortly before he was due to report to prison.

These were the types of men Sharpton was dealing with in the 1980s as he tried to work with independent black music promoters trying to break into the business. Having served for a decade as road manager for singer James Brown, Sharpton knew the industry gangers were not to be trifled with. When Genovese associates threatened to kill Sharpton for challenging their stranglehold on music, Sharpton says, he ran straight to the FBI, who in turn asked him to wear a wire and help gather evidence against the mobsters.

The strategy seems to have worked: Many of the Genovese hoods that Sharpton spoke to or heard about ended up behind bars, including Gigante, who died in prison in 2005.

The good reverend, meanwhile, moved further into mainstream grassroots politics and maintains to this day that he did nothing wrong. Sharpton, in fact, makes the valid point that many black communities suffer high crime rates because of a destructive "stop snitching" attitude of non-cooperation with police -- and that his wearing a wire for the FBI represents a move in a more positive direction.

He's right. When confronted with death threats from organized crime, the logical action for law-abiding citizens is to report the problem to the authorities and help bring the criminals to justice. That is what Sharpton did, and you don't have to like his politics to conclude that, in this case, he made the best of a scary situation.

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