The new, improved Reverend Al Sharpton has been establishing a Washington, D.C. presence ever since President Obama took office nearly four years ago. But apparently, the New York City-based minister, politician and media personality hasn’t evolved from his attitude about the need to pay bills on time. Last week the Washington Post reported that Sharpton’s nonprofit vehicle, National Action Network (NAN), is seven months behind on its rent for downtown Washington building space it sublets from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, or COMTO. The overall debt now exceeds $28,000. His top aide, Rachel Noerdlinger, insists NAN has made good on all past due balances. Yet given Sharpton’s history of leaving creditors out in the cold, COMTO would do well to be skeptical.
Nobody likes to pay bills. But people typically pay anyway because it’s the right and legal thing to do. In buying something, we incur an obligation to pay for it. Al Sharpton goes by a different philosophy: Don’t pay. As National Legal and Policy Center reported in September 2010, the man has a pattern of stiffing creditors. An audit by the accounting firm KBL showed that the Harlem, N.Y.-based National Action Network owed nearly $1.35 million in combined back federal, state and city taxes and penalties at the close of 2008. In April 2009 the Federal Election Commission fined NAN $285,000 for campaign finance law violations committed during his run for president during 2003-04; the FEC in 2004 already had ordered Sharpton’s campaign to return $100,000 in federal matching funds and forgo nearly another $80,000 for which he presumably had qualified. NAN also shortchanged the Peabody Hotel in Memphis for about $70,000 on activities (not including Peabody management’s attorney’s fees and miscellaneous costs) related to its 2008 annual convention at the elegant venue. And the group also failed to make good on at least $50,000, and as much as $193,000, to a New York travel agency, Alpha International Travel, for hotel and airline reservations.
It appears that Rev. Sharpton, whose history of political demagoguery masquerading as black “civil rights” was documented in a lengthy 2009 NLPC report (see pdf), now has another financial credibility problem. About 18 months ago, Sharpton signed a lease with the Reston, Va.-based Conference of Minority Transportation Officials to sublet office space to a National Action Network branch office at the conference’s downtown Washington, D.C. office. COMTO had just moved its Washington operation at 818 18th Street NW to a location across the street. The conference had put out the word to the nonprofit world that it had some vacant space for rent. Sharpton jumped at the offer. Unfortunately, the arrangement hasn’t been going too well. Last week COMTO President Julie Cunningham indicated, with the sublease set to expire on Friday, that NAN was seven months behind on its rental payments, an amount representing more than $28,000, including late fees. COMTO Chairman Robert Henry Prince Jr. explains the situation this way: “We were pleased that another group of similar status was coming in. We didn’t know they wouldn’t be honoring their rental agreement.”
COMTO’s trouble in collecting hasn’t been for want of trying. After a few months of making prompt payments, NAN fell behind. Cunningham wrote polite reminders to Sharpton and his board members about the problem, but to no avail. Eventually, the Rev’s Ms. Fix-It, Rachel Noerdlinger, came to the rescue – sort of. While denying allegations that NAN was behind on the rent, she e-mailed to the Washington Post a copy of a $16,950 check, dated November 27, 2012, that her group had made out to COMTO. She added that NAN has signed a new lease to continue operating in that space, and that the $16,950 check plus a $10,550 security deposit should cover everything. Or will it? COMTO’s Cunningham responded that even if the check arrives, it won’t cover the balance due or the cost of the furniture NAN has leased and intends to buy.
However this dust-up plays out, its very existence underscores Sharpton’s high Washington profile. It’s important to realize that until several years ago, his whole personal and professional identity revolved around the city of his origins, New York City. Whether in Manhattan or the outer boroughs, he relished his role as the most prominent black political leader in New York. But with the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, Sharpton has shifted a sizable portion of his profile and enthusiasm to Washington, D.C. He’s been a regular visitor to the White House. He had President Obama as the guest of honor at the 2011 NAN annual convention (as a U.S. senator from Illinois, Obama in 2007 already had addressed the group). And for the first time, NAN this past April held its national convention in Washington rather than New York. There’s no question about it: Washington is Reverend Al’s home away from home. And given the November election results, it should remain to his liking for another four years.
On the surface, Sharpton’s financial difficulties would seem utterly improbable. First, he has nothing to gain and lots to lose by saddling himself with a reputation as a rent scofflaw. And second, National Action Network for years has attracted generous corporate donations. Sponsors of the group’s 2012 convention (listed in the program) include : AT&T, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, Facebook, FedEx, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, Home Depot, Macy’s, McDonald’s, The News Corporation, PepsiCo, Verizon and Walmart. With that kind of backing, how come NAN can’t pay its rent? And where has the money been going? The Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, among other people, may be looking for answers for some time. Improbable, yes, but this is Al Sharpton we’re talking about.