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'Not "The Sopranos"': Sharpton Says Fear Motivated FBI Cooperation

Image: Al Sharpton

Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during a news conference in New York, on April 8. Sharpton says a report that he spied on New York Mafia figures for the FBI in the 1980s is old news. Seth Wenig / AP

The Rev. Al Sharpton is standing behind his decision to work as an undercover informant for the FBI three decades ago in an investigation of Mob influence in the music industry.

"I think that if a civil rights leader and a minister has to apologize for inadvertently getting bad guys out of the music industry, then we're in a sad day in America," Sharpton told NBC News' Pete Williams in an interview on Tuesday.

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Sharpton was responding to a report by The Smoking Gun website on Monday that detailed both his work as an informant for a joint FBI-NYPD task force investigating the Genovese and Gambino crime families in the 1980s, as well as his current close ties to President Barack Obama.

According to the report, the 59-year-old Sharpton worked with the task force for several years beginning in the mid-1980s after he and other black concert promoters received death threats from members of the mob. It said he recorded conversations with Genovese boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante and other Mafioso with a special recording device hidden in his briefcase.

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The report said its account was based on confidential FBI affidavits, documents obtained through FOIA requests, court records and extensive interviews with law enforcement officers.

In an interview with The Smoking Gun, Sharpton denied he acted as a confidential informant for the FBI, but he told NBC News on Tuesday that he wasn't sure what he was considered.

"I cooperated with the investigation," said the longtime civil rights activist and now host of "PoliticsNation" on MSNBC, a division of NBC Universal. "Now does that make me an informant or a cooperating witness? I don't know. But that's what I did."

Sharpton said he cooperated out of fear.

"I come out of the church. I come out of the civil rights community, and I'm talking to a guy who's talking about killing people," he said. "… This is not 'The Sopranos' on television. This is real-deal guys who control the music industry in the '80s. Of course I'm going to try to get law enforcement to protect me."

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The Smoking Gun quoted law enforcement sources say saying that Sharpton cooperated with the task force after he was recorded at a meeting in which an undercover agent discussed a cocaine deal. It said that while Sharpton did not explicitly offer to arrange a drug deal, the recording was used as leverage to get him to cooperate.

But Sharpton sharply denied that on Tuesday, telling NBC News: "The whole idea that, at 29 years old … that I'm going to say, 'Oh, wire me up because you brought up a drug deal!' I was not into drugs, never was into drugs … I mean the whole story's ludicrous."

Much of the information regarding Sharpton's role as an informant was reported in 1988 by New York Newsday. It also was mentioned briefly in his best-selling autobiography, "The Rejected Stone," published in October 2013.

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