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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Al Sharpton Denies Allegations of Corporate Shakedowns

Al Sharpton is being accused of threatening racial boycotts to obtain funds from large corporations for his National Action Network (NAN) charity. Sharpton has denied any wrongdoing and the US Attorney's Office in Brooklyn is conducting an investigation.
NAN was founded by Al Sharpton and began in Harlem in 1991 and now has 45 chapters across the country. The group lobbies for African-American rights and raises awareness of issues such as police brutality and racial profiling.

Critics are accusing Al Sharpton of what they are calling shakedowns, threatening to have race rallies and boycott certain corporations, unless those corporations contribute large donations to his NAN charity.

Sharpton denies all the allegations and the NAN charity is collecting monies even as the US Attorney's Office in Brooklyn is conducting a grand jury investigation into NAN's finances.

Companies which include but are not limited to, Anheuser-Busch, which gave NAN and Sharpton six figures, Colgate-Palmolive shelled out $50,000 and Macy's and Pfizer have contributed as well.

General Motors (GM), via a spokesperson, told the New York Post that NAN had repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to solicit donations from them since the year 2000 and in December of 2006, Sharpton threatened to boycott GM after they closed an African-American-owned GM dealership in The Bronx. Sharpton also picketed outside of the GM headquarters.

In 2007, GM gave NAN a $5,000 donation and an additional $5,000 this year, with another spokesperson calling NAN a worthy organization.

Terrified of negative publicity, fearful of a consumer boycott or eager to make nice with the civil-rights activist, CEOs write checks, critics say, to NAN and Sharpton - who brandishes the buying power of African-American consumers. In some cases, they hire him as a consultant.

In November of 2003, Al Sharpton started picketing the DaimlerChrysler Chicago car show and threatened a boycott alleging that they were showing racial bias in car loans, to which Sharpton said, "This is institutional racism."

By 2004, DaimlerChrysler began supporting NAN's conferences.

In 2003 it was American Honda, which Sharpton accused of not hiring enough African-Americans in management and two months after American Honda met with Sharpton, they began to also sponsor NAN events and continue to pay what they call a "modest amount", each year.

Sharpton has snagged other gigs as a consultant. Less than a year after he threatened to call for a consumer boycott of Pepsi in June 1998 because the company's ads did not portray African-Americans, the company hired him as a $25,000-a-year adviser until 2007.

Sharpton made the same complaint against Macy's in 1998. The company appointed Sharpton an unpaid adviser on diversity, but also funds NAN's annual conference. Last week, Macy's Senior Vice President Ed Goldberg praised Sharpton as "the kind of guy you can sit down and talk to."

In 2001-2002, Sharpton threatened to instigate a national boycott against the MGM Mirage in Nevada if they refused to meet with him to discuss alleged racism in their hiring practices, and by 2003, the MGM named NAN one of its diversity "partners" in Detroit.

Peter Flaherty, who is the president of the National Legal and Policy Center in Virginia, which is a conservative corporate watchdog group claims, "I think this is quite clearly a shakedown operation. He's good at harassing people and making noise. CEOs give him his way because it is a lot easier than confronting him."

Is Al Sharpton threatening corporate giants to pay his NAN charity or face race rallies?

Sharpton categorically denies any such allegation, which he calls the "old shakedown theory that the anti-civil-rights forces have used against us forever," he continues on to tell The Post, "Why can't they come up with one company that says that? No one has criticized me."

The post spoke to La-Van Hawkins, who is a partner in Hawkins Food Group, who runs fast food businesses nationwide. They spoke to him from Yankton Federal Prison where he is serving time for bribery charges and he says that after a failed attempt to sue Burger King in the year 2000, he received help from Sharpton, attorney Johnnie Cochran and a Miami lawyer to speak with Burger King executives, which ended in Burger King settling with Hawkins for $31 million.

Sharpton did not receive any portion of that settlement, but he was paid an annual fee of $25,000 and Hawkins Food Group donated over $1 million to NAN.

Hawkins says, "His way [Sharpton] of doing things was, 'If we're going to support you and you're not going to support us, then we have to focus on telling the African-American community not to spend their money."

In 2007, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo discovered that NAN had failed to file years of financial reports and although NAN had filed more records, the AG's office will not release those records pending the investigation into NAN's finances.

The Post also found out in their research that NAN owes the IRS $1.9 million in payroll taxes, to which the groups says they are cooperating with the authorities to "pay whatever obligations it owes and continues to do so."

Since this story broke, Sharpton has released a statement through NAN Vice President Rachel Noerdlinger denying the claims made by the New York Post article, and challenged the writer of The Post article to a debate on his radio show.

The release titled "Where's the Shakedown?":

"The New York Post continues its efforts to undermine the civil rights movement with articles that mislead the public. New York Post reporter Isabel Vincent writes an article entitled "Sharpton Shakedown; Boycotted CEOs write checks to Rev. Al," even though the article had no evidence of shakedowns or corporations claiming that their contributions to NAN were in any way coerced or intended to buy silence.

To the contrary. Ms. Vincent conceded that every corporation she spoke with had nothing but positive things to say about NAN, even if they did not agree with every NAN program or effort. None mentioned feeling "shaken down," either on or off the record.

Further, the Post, in its typical fashion, omitted facts that contradicted the article's shakedown premise. Most notably, Ms. Vincent did not include one example of when Reverend Sharpton and NAN spoke out critically against companies after they had contributed to NAN, such as corporations from the music industry whose offices were marched on for their promoting indecent music lyrics, or criticizing Pepsi for its use of a rapper in an ad campaign whose lyrics were offensive, or Comcast who had a reporter who made an offensive statement. In addition, notwithstanding the fact that NBC has long sponsored NAN events and has been honored in the past, Reverend Sharpton led the charge against them to fire Don Imus.

Further, the Post skillfully omitted that most corporate contributions to NAN are made in connection with sponsoring an event, such as a convention or dinner, and their contribution is made in exchange for corporate sponsorship, promotion and advertising; not much different than when Macys places an ad in the Post. Obviously, neither the Post with its advertising revenues, nor civil rights organizations or other charities with their events supported by corporations, could fully function without receiving financial support from those where there are disagreements.

I have spoken with Reverend Sharpton about this article and he has informed me that he will be extending an invitation to Ms. Vincent to defend her article on his national radio show program tomorrow or Tuesday so people can judge for themselves whether she had any facts to substantiate her misleading headline and article in today's New York Post, or whether this was simply a hatchet job consistent with those made by individuals who are at odds with the civil rights movement. A newspaper or reporter who had nothing to hide should jump at the chance to promote their story if true. Only those allergic to discussing the truth would duck such an invitation"

As of yet, the writer of The Post piece, Isabel Vincent, had not responded to Sharpton's invitation to his show.