The skeletons and suits in Sharpton’s closet

The controversial political leader and Democratic presidential candidate delivers a pointed warning: If you attack me, you risk being sued.

Topics: Howard Dean, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John F. Kerry, D-Mass., John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Al Gore, HBO, Rudy Giuliani,

With the threat of a defamation lawsuit against an obscure GOP state representative from Michigan, the Rev. Al Sharpton officially gave the political and media worlds notice on Thursday: If you intend to write negative things about the activist and fledgling Democratic presidential candidate, you had better be certain that you have your facts straight. But it’s unclear whether Sharpton’s team has as firm a hold on the ugly realities of his past as their threat would seem to indicate.

Sharpton’s attorney, Michael Hardy, told Salon on Thursday that Sharpton is serious about the lawsuit against Michigan state Rep. Marc Shulman, and will likely file it if Shulman doesn’t apologize within the next month for the allegations he made in a letter to a fellow Michigan politician.

Shulman, offended by Sharpton’s invitation to keynote a local African-American community dinner, cited actions and quotations attributed to Sharpton that, in his view, illustrated bigotry. They included seemingly anti-Semitic quotes by Sharpton from the 1991 Crown Heights affair where tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews resulted in riots and a murder, as well as a reference to “Socrates and them Greek homos” allegedly from a 1994 speech. Hardy acknowledged that the threatened lawsuit was just as much — if not more so — about firing a warning shot across the bow of those who may attempt to use Sharpton’s controversial, occasionally demagogic past against him.

“Absolutely, we’re sending a message,” Hardy said. “It’s not so much Rev. Sharpton as it is those of us around Rev. Sharpton who support him and want to protect his reputation.” Opponents and reporters should know: “You can say whatever you want to” about Sharpton, “you can criticize him and you can satirize him, but if you’re going to make allegations about him you had better be accurate or we will be there to challenge you on it.”

Sharpton has emerged as one of the more litigious presidential candidates in recent memory, having sued myriad politicos and media outlets for defamation, including the New York Post, HBO, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and the Republican National Committee. Only his 2000 federal suit against the RNC and its then chair, Jim Nicholson, resulted in Sharpton’s receiving an apology; in none of the above suits has he been awarded a cent in damages.

The move is an unusual one, to say the least, as it assures media coverage focusing on allegations that Sharpton has been anti-Semitic, anti-white, and in general a rabble-rouser, if only to parse which ones are correct, which are false, and which are in the eye of the beholder. While no credible political observers think Sharpton has a chance to win the Democratic presidential nomination, he does stand to be at least a minor force in the primaries, raising issues of importance to some African-American and liberal voters. The threatened lawsuit thus implies a certain acceptance that many voters already have negative perceptions of Sharpton and it’s worth more to raise his controversial past so as to correct — or at least fuzz — the record than to avoid it altogether.

At this early point in the campaign, Sharpton is, at least according to polls, just as credible as some of the “top-tier” candidates pundits have anointed. According to a Quinnipiac University poll of Democratic voters earlier this month, Sharpton lags behind Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry on a national level. But, embarrassingly for their campaigns, he is in a statistical dead heat with Florida Sen. Bob Graham, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for fourth place. In South Carolina, where African-Americans could make up one-third of the Democratic primary voters, Sharpton consistently polls in the middle of the pack, ahead of Graham and Dean. Some in the media have speculated that the candidacy of former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, who is also black, is a strategy by some in the Democratic Party to divide the black vote and thus lessen Sharpton’s importance in the primaries and caucuses.

Sharpton is — as former Vice President Al Gore said during a March 1, 2000, primary debate when asked to condemn some of Sharpton’s more incendiary contributions to Bartlett’s — “undeniably a person to whom some people in [New York] city look as a spokesperson.” With Sharpton as an actual presidential candidate, many Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of his competitors walking the line between condemning some of Sharpton’s more offensive contributions to civic discourse while not offending minorities who make up much of the Democratic base.

This may have been at least a factor behind the May 1 letter that Shulman, the Republican chairman of the Michigan Legislature’s appropriations committee, wrote to Derek Albert, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black Caucus. Shulman took issue with the Caucus’ selection of Sharpton as keynote speaker at its May 9 awards dinner. Citing a number of allegations of anti-Semitism, Shulman accused Sharpton of “fostering anti-Semitism, racism, and hate.” Such allegations are by no means new, and many are fairly credible. The Sharpton legal team charges that Shulman’s sources — he quotes from conservative sources such as syndicated columnist Mona Charen, Jay Nordlinger of the National Review, and a book called “Democrats Do the Dumbest Things” — do not represent “fair, true, accurate or balanced reporting.”

As with almost anything in the post-Clarence Thomas world of American racial politics, this dispute is not without its glaring ironies. Sharpton, of course, was himself sued for defamation by former Dutchess County assistant district attorney Steven Pagones, after Sharpton and other advisors to then-15-year-old Tawana Brawley falsely accused Pagones of kidnapping and raping Brawley in 1987. In 1998, Pagones was awarded $345,000 in damages, $65,000 of which Sharpton was to pay. Sharpton refused to do so. However, in March 2001, a number of black business leaders including Johnnie Cochran, former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, and Earl Graves Jr., the president of Black Enterprise magazine, agreed to pay Pagones on behalf of Sharpton. Pagones did not return a call for comment.

It seems certain that at least one group of Sharpton-watchers was already on notice — the RNC. In 2000, the RNC was attempting to tie Vice President Al Gore to Sharpton, who has a fairly strong base of black support in New York City and has thus had Democrats like Gore and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., line up to give him awkward, hypocritical smooches. “Al Sharpton is a racist anti-Semite with blood on his hands,” one RNC spokesman said to The Jewish Week in 2000. “He is the David Duke of the Democrat Party. Why has Al Gore and most of the Democrat Party embraced this hate-monger?”

But a March 11 letter to the Washington Post by RNC chairman Jim Nicholson seemed to cross a line. Nicholson accused Sharpton of inciting “the Crown Heights pogrom against Jews in Brooklyn” in 1991 where, Nicholson charged, “Sharpton set off four nights of rock- and bottle-throwing attacks on Jewish homes, culminating in a mob surrounding a young Talmudic scholar, Yankel Rosenbaum, and stabbing him to death.” He also insinuated that in 1995 Sharpton incited “a massacre at Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem” where, “following a Sharpton-led demonstration, one protester set the store on fire, killing seven people — most of them black and Hispanic.”

These were direct allegations of crimes — and Sharpton sued for $30 million. In March 2001, the RNC issued something of an apology, writing that the organization “did not intend to state that Reverend Sharpton’s involvement in the Crown Heights events led to the death of Yankel Rosenbaum. Nor did the letter mean to imply that Reverend Sharpton had any direct communication with the person who burned down Freddy’s Fashion Mart. The RNC regrets any such misunderstanding.” No money was awarded, but Sharpton told reporters at the time that cash was not the point — his reputation was far more valuable.

Shulman’s allegations seem far less incendiary than Nicholson’s, in that no actual crimes were alleged. Shulman quotes Sharpton from a college speech in which he allegedly referred to Africans having “taught philosophy before Socrates and them Greeks homos ever got around to it.” The quote appeared in a December 1995 story in The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, and was based on a videotape of a 1994 appearance Sharpton made at Kean College in New Jersey. Sharpton told the Forward that “Homo is not a homophobic term, but I think even the reference is irresponsible and I don’t do that any longer.” Asked about the quote by Tucker Carlson on CNN’s “Crossfire” in May 2002, Sharpton said, “I don’t know that you’re quoting me properly or not.”

A second excerpt from Shulman’s letter alleges that Sharpton showed up at a Hasidic funeral condemning “diamond merchants” and spread a false rumor that a Jewish-owned ambulance refused to treat Gavin Cato, an African-American boy accidentally killed by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew in Crown Heights in 1991. (The Jewish-owned Hatzolah ambulance arrived and, following police instructions, took away the Hasid and his family; a city ambulance arrived moments later. In the riots that followed, Yankel Rosenbaum was killed amidst much anti-Semitic rhetoric.) Attorney Hardy says that Shulman’s accusation is based on unfair and out-of-context paraphrasing. “If Rev. Sharpton used the term ‘diamond merchant,’ he may not have used it in the context that Shulman is portraying it in.”

But according to a thoroughly reported January 1993 account in Commentary magazine, at Cato’s funeral, Sharpton implied that the car accident was intentional, and compared the closed Hasidic community of Crown Heights with apartheid South Africa. “The world will tell us he was killed by accident,” Sharpton said. “Yes, it was a social accident … It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights.” He spoke about South Africans sending diamonds “straight to Tel Aviv and [making] deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights.” He charged that “The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid….” Sharpton added that “we’re not anybody to be left to die waiting on an ambulance.”

Shulman’s third Sharpton quotation, for which the only source appears to be the National Review — “If Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house” — is “not an accurate quotation,” Hardy said. “The whole letter is fairly inaccurate in terms of what may have been said at the time.” Sharpton’s team will search the archives to ascertain what the actual quotes were, Hardy said. “The burden will be on us to demonstrate that [the quotes were inaccurate].”

Shulman could not be reached for comment. But a spokesman from his legislative office in Michigan told the Associated Press that “we’re confident that we’re on strong constitutional grounds. Certainly anyone running for president should expect criticism … and those quotes are in the public domain.”

Even Hardy acknowledges that a lawsuit against Shulman “has all sorts of obstacles,” not only because Sharpton is a public figure, or that Shulman’s letter appears to be private correspondence that Sharpton has done more to publicize than anyone else, but because Hardy would have to prove malicious intent. “Obviously by footnoting [the alleged quotations in his letter], Mr. Shulman was aware he is walking on dangerous ground. Otherwise why would he footnote?”

Even if this entire brouhaha is intended only as a warning for reporters and pols, it’s unclear whether it will have that effect. Last year Sharpton filed a lawsuit against HBO seeking $1 billion in damages for airing an FBI surveillance tape in which Sharpton spoke to an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer. Sharpton sued HBO, HBO Real Sports, AOL Time Warner, former Colombo crime family boss Michael Franzese (whom the segment was about) and journalist Bernard Goldberg, also well known as the author of “Bias,” a book that examined alleged liberal bias in the media. That lawsuit is being held in abeyance, Hardy says. “There’s some discovery being done in terms of getting all the [surveillance] videotapes from the government.”

More relevantly, on Feb. 19, 1997, Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign manager, Fran Reiter, said that Sharpton “incited riots, he has engaged in criminal conduct and he now seeks to run for mayor.” Sharpton subsequently sued Reiter, Giuliani and the New York Post. But the case was thrown out of court in October because, as the judge ruled, “In the realm of political expression, the broadest protection is provided to discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates.”

Let the games begin.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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