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Rev. Al Sharpton and Me

In 1988, Al Sharpton was 33 and a fiery civil rights advocate. I was 34, the police bureau chief for the newspaper New York Newsday, and part of a reporting team that had spent months digging into the allegations that “The Rev” had spied on black activists, mobsters and sports figures as an informant for the FBI.

He was portly, wore a track suit, a medallion the size of a hub cap, and a pompadour. He was also a lightning rod for high-profile civil rights cases, leading protests after the death of Michael Griffith, who was beaten and chased into traffic by a white mob in Queens, and becoming a spokesman for Tawana Brawley, the upstate black teen who falsely claimed she’d been gang raped by whites.

Today Al Sharpton is the host of one of MSNBC’s more popular shows and I am the senior executive producer for investigations at NBC News. We pass each other in the halls, and I’ve appeared on his broadcast, where he introduced me as “my colleague, Richard Esposito.”

On the eve of Sharpton’s National Action Network Convention in Manhattan, “The Smoking Gun” website has posted a report, with fresh documents, that reprises the reporting we did so many years ago.

Our reporting was submitted for a Pulitzer, and a long-ago letter from the Pulitzer committee sits somewhere in the files of Bob Drury, the one-time sports writer (and now non-fiction book author) who was the lead reporter on the team. It was Drury’s earlier reporting on flamboyant boxing promoter Don King, who he placed at a meeting with Colombo family mobster Michael Franzese, FBI undercover agent Victor Quintanilla, and Al Sharpton, that became the impetus for the Newsday probe.

Quintanilla, the undercover agent, had been posing as a man trying to get into the fight promotion business. In a videotape that the FBI attempted to use to ensnare Sharpton, law enforcement officials told Newsday, Sharpton discussed a cocaine deal with the agent.

In a two-hour interview with Drury and Mike McAlary, Sharpton disputed the version provided by law enforcement sources, but admitted the FBI threatened to prosecute him based on the contents of the videotape.

“[An agent] said to me that they got a tape of me talking drugs,” said Sharpton. “I don’t know if they were bluffing to be honest with you. … They claim that they have all this on tape. I said ‘If you do, you got an entrapment. I never agreed to do anything like this.’ I told them to indict me.”

Reporting by the Newsday team, which also included Robert Kessler, who had deep FBI sources, indicated that after the drug sting Sharpton had carried a briefcase equipped with a recording device during meetings with mobsters, activists and other figures of interest to the FBI.

“That briefcase was sitting on his desk when he spoke to us,” Drury recalls. “When we told him that our sources told us he spent five years as government informant and we pointed to the briefcase that contained the wire, he acknowledged it. “

McAlary, who later won a Pulitzer for exposing the police sexual assault on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, was jumping for joy after he and Drury completed the interview with Sharpton. McAlary felt he’d nailed “The Rev.”

Sharpton, who was then in the midst of the Brawley fiasco and was becoming one of the nation’s most visible black activists, denounced the Newsday account as “ludicrous.” He made public statements counter to what he’d said in his taped interview with Newsday, according to excerpts published by the paper.

“On the drug case, they installed a phone in my house. Civil rights people would never call me on that phone. I didn’t give the number out. I called them,” he said in the taped interview.

The next day he denied it.

Whenever I pass Sharpton in the halls at NBC – and believe me, there isn’t a flicker of recognition in his eyes – I think of the countless phone calls I lobbed at him over the years, which he was less and less likely to return the more famous he became. When all else failed, I resorted to a simple formulation.

“Reverend, this is Esposito, of Esposito, Drury and McAlary,” I’d say. Usually, that worked.

But this is New York, and we all reinvent ourselves. The once-portly Al is now as skinny as a Pez dispenser. The police reporter who drank at dawn in fish market bars with undercover cops is now a broadcast news executive.

Even the mobster Fritzy Giovanelli , who was sentenced to 20 years in prison based on wiretaps that Sharpton’s info helped convince a judge to authorize, has had a chance to rethink things. He advocates leniency for Reverend Al.

“Poor Sharpton, he cleaned up his life,” said Giovanelli, “and you want to ruin him.”