The Rev. Al Sharpton is seemingly everywhere today: he hosts an MSNBC show, conducts civil rights rallies, even meets with President Joe Biden, both in public and as a confidant.
But as Sharpton has become one of the nation’s most prominent liberal voices in the national political-media-entertainment complex, there’s one topic absent from his list of talking points: Sharpton’s old 2004 presidential campaign committee still owes the U.S. Treasury more than $21,000, according to a Raw Story review of federal records.
Sharpton’s campaign debt is the result of a 2009 agreement with the Federal Election Commission requiring Sharpton 2004 to pay federal fines for accepting excessive donations and prohibited corporate contributions.
“I think it’s outrageous,” Ann Ravel, a former FEC chairman, told Raw Story. “They should put a lien on their bank account. They obviously committed an illegal act that they have taken responsibility for. They agreed to and failed to do so, because they failed to pay the fine. It renders the FEC toothless if there’s no accountability for campaigns that are clearly doing something illegal.”
Ravel, a Democrat appointed to the FEC by then-President Barack Obama, said an agreement that requires a political campaign to pay money to the U.S. Treasury puts the FEC in an awkward position. Once the FEC reaches an agreement with a political committee, the agency has little power to enforce the terms of the agreement, she explained.
“The FEC obviously doesn’t have responsibility for what the Treasury is failing to do, but it would be a wise action for them to connect with Treasury on this and let them know that when they come to a conciliation agreement at the FEC, which is part of the federal government, it should be enforced,” Ravel said. “That’s one way they can increase people’s trust in the FEC is that the Treasury is following through.”
Sharpton did not respond to Raw Story’s request for comment, nor did Terence Cullen, a spokesperson, who only noted in an email on Tuesday that the Sharpton 2004 presidential campaign committee also owes Sharpton himself $100,000.
MSNBC, the network where Sharpton hosts the weekend news program “Politics Nation with Al Sharpton,” also did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Former Sharpton spokesperson Rachel Noerdlinger told the Center for Public Integrity in 2013 that Sharpton had planned to conduct a fundraiser to address his campaign debt problems, although it’s now unclear whether such an event ever occurred. Regardless, Sharpton’s campaign debt remains.
The U.S. Bureau of the Fiscal Service, the division of the U.S. Treasury that is responsible for collecting money owed to the federal government, declined to comment.
Money and trouble
Sharpton failed to win any delegates during the 2004 presidential campaign — or even a significant share of the Black vote in the crucial South Carolina primary. He dropped out of the race in March of that year, and endorsed John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, who’d go on to lose to Republican President George W. Bush.
But Sharpton’s standing in the Democratic Party establishment — already significant then — has only grown since. Of late, he’s grown close to President Joe Biden. And in October, reports emerged that Biden told Sharpton during a private conversation at the White House that he will seek a second term.
Biden then appeared on Sharpton’s syndicated radio show in November, and in January, spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast hosted by Sharpton’s National Action Network. There, Biden described Sharpton as “a good friend.”
The Biden-Sharpton friendship is made at least mildly awkward by the fact that Sharpton’s presidential committee owes money to a part of the Biden administration — the U.S. Treasury — that Biden is fighting to bolster.
For example, Biden has lambasted Republican efforts to reduce funding to the Internal Revenue Service, a part of the U.S. Treasury. Biden has even vowed to veto legislation that he says would “shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle-class” and “make it harder for middle-class families and small businesses to get timely tax refunds and other important services from the IRS, by rescinding billions in funding for IRS information technology and operations.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (left) speaks with Al Sharpton (center) and John Edwards (right) during a break at the MSNBC January 29, 2004, in Greenville, S.C.Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images
Here’s how the Sharpton campaign wound up owing the U.S. Treasury $21,250:
The FEC found that a 2004 presidential election fundraiser for Sharpton hosted by the late Detroit fast-food magnate La-Van Hawkins exceeded the limit for in-kind contributions by $9,000. A flight valued at $1,750 that Hawkins provided for Sharpton also constituted a prohibited corporate contribution. Thus, the agreement required the campaign to pay the U.S. Treasury, at a minimum, $10,750.
The agreement also addressed another matter — the receipt of excessive contributions — and gave the Sharpton campaign the option of either refunding $10,500 in excessive contributions or forking the money over to the U.S. Treasury.
Soon after Sharpton and his treasurer signed the agreement with the FEC, the campaign reported a debt of $19,500 to the U.S. Treasury.
That total appears to combine the $10,500 and $9,000 increments but does not address the matter valued at $1,750. Thus, with $1,750 added to the campaign’s acknowledged debt of $19,500, the true debt to the U.S. Treasury comes to $21,250.
As for the $1,750 debt to the Treasury that appears to have gone unreported in the Sharpton campaign filings, Myles G. Martin, a spokesperson at the FEC, declined to comment other than to direct Raw Story to a clause in the agency’s compliance agreement with Sharpton 2004.
That clause stipulates that the agency has the option of filing a civil lawsuit against the Sharpton campaign in D.C. federal court to address any violations of the agreement.
The 2009 agreement with the FEC cited poor record-keeping as the cause of the Sharpton campaign’s legal woes, noting that Sharpton “routinely mixed travel” for the campaign and his responsibilities as president of the National Action Network, and that the nonprofit “effectively subsidized the Sharpton 2004 presidential campaign by paying for vendors and consultants who performed work to benefit the [campaign] committee.”
As a result, the agreement required the campaign to refund $181,115 to the National Action Network or forfeit it to the government. FEC filings indicate that the campaign intends to do the former.
The Sharpton campaign’s debt was already sizable before its legal troubles with the FEC.
By that time the campaign had $480,096 on the books from debts owed to consultants and publicists, in addition to Sharpton and Rivera themselves. But after the campaign committed to pay civil penalties to the FEC, fork over money to the U.S. Treasury and refund illegal contributions to the National Action Network, the debt ballooned to $888,713.
Records on file with the FEC show that a combination of payments from Sharpton himself and the campaign paid off the $208,000 owed to the FEC for civil penalties by March 2010.
The debt is still listed on Sharpton’s most recent FEC report, filed on Jan 31, with a note that he “paid the civil penalty with personal funds within the agreed upon timeframe.” Excluding the FEC debt, which appears to be satisfied, the campaign’s total debt is closer to $680,000.
Under a separate agreement signed by Sharpton as an officer of the National Action Network, the nonprofit agreed to pay a civil penalty of $77,000 to the FEC for the election law violations. FEC records show that the National Action Network paid off the civil penalties in 2009.
Yet the $21,250 the Sharpton campaign committed to forfeiting to the US government in 2009 for excessive contributions and prohibited corporate contributions remains unpaid.
If the Sharpton campaign does intend to pay off its debt to the US Treasury and other creditors, it’s unclear where the money would come from: The campaign reported a negative balance of -$11,636 on its year-end report for 2022.
Sharpton could also choose to pay off the debt himself.