MSNBC is no stranger to guest panelists from the New York Times, but don't expect Times writer Russ Buettner to appear on the network's air anytime soon. Mr. Buettner gave readers of the November 18 paper a look at how "Questions About [Rev. Al] Sharpton’s Finances Accompany His Rise in Influence."
Sharpton's financial troubles -- including those with Uncle Sam -- are hardly new, but Buettner explained the news hook meriting fresh coverage (emphasis mine):
Mr. Sharpton’s influence and visibility have reached new heights this year, fueled by his close relationships with the mayor and the president.
Obscured in his ascent, however, has been his troubling financial past, which continues to shadow his present.
Mr. Sharpton has regularly sidestepped the sorts of obligations most people see as inevitable, like taxes, rent and other bills. Records reviewed by The New York Times show more than $4.5 million in current state and federal tax liens against him and his for-profit businesses. And though he said in recent interviews that he was paying both down, his balance with the state, at least, has actually grown in recent years. His National Action Network appears to have been sustained for years by not paying federal payroll taxes on its employees.
With the tax liability outstanding, Mr. Sharpton traveled first class and collected a sizable salary, the kind of practice by nonprofit groups that the United States Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration recently characterized as “abusive,” or “potentially criminal” if the failure to turn over or collect taxes is willful.
Mr. Sharpton and the National Action Network have repeatedly failed to pay travel agencies, hotels and landlords. He has leaned on the generosity of friends and sometimes even the organization, intermingling its finances with his own to cover his daughters’ private school tuition.
He has been in the news as much as ever this year, becoming a prominent advocate on behalf of the families of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died in police custody, and Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. He also has a daily platform through his show on MSNBC.
Behind the scenes, he has consulted with the mayor and the president on matters of race and civil rights and even the occasional high-level appointment. He was among a small group at the White House when Mr. Obama announced his nomination of Loretta E. Lynch, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, to become the next attorney general.
Mr. Sharpton’s newly found insider status represents a potential financial boon for him, furnishing him with new credibility and a surge in donations. His politician-heavy birthday party, at one of New York City’s most expensive restaurants, was billed as a fund-raiser to help his organization. Mr. Obama also spoke at the organization’s convention in April, its primary fund-raising event.
But the recent troubles of Rachel Noerdlinger, Mr. Sharpton’s closest aide for many years and more recently a top official in the de Blasio administration, served as a reminder of Mr. Sharpton’s fraught history and how easily it can spill over into the corridors of power in which he now travels.
Ms. Noerdlinger took a leave of absence from her post on Monday, after the arrest of her teenage son on trespassing charges. The decision capped weeks of scrutiny after news accounts revealed that she had failed to disclose a live-in boyfriend with an extensive criminal record on a background questionnaire when she became the top adviser to Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray. The omission was unrelated to Mr. Sharpton, but it is the kind of paperwork oversight that has been a trademark of his nonprofit, where Ms. Noerdlinger built her career.
While I don't expect much mainstream media scrutiny of Mr. Sharpton, I must point out and salute Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who lit into MSNBC (emphasis mine):
MSNBC has all but invited this embarrassment. As the Erik Wemple Blog has reported, Sharpton negotiated his contract with MSNBC under the stipulation that his work as an activist would continue. In remarks in D.C. last year, Sharpton recalled what he told MSNBC President Phil Griffin about his status: “I said, well, I’m still going to run NAN, I’m still going to be an activist.” Griffin responded positively. “He said, ‘Put it in the contract. We’d never interfere with what you’re doing, your civil rights work,’” Sharpton quoted Griffin as saying.
On one level, Sharpton’s various hats carry implications for the ethics of his work at MSNBC. Being an anchor on a news network while also serving as a big shot at the White House and the head of a civil rights group creates a jumble of undiagrammable — and almost unknowable — conflicts of interest.
Yet the other level of concern is precisely what the Times has exposed: Sharpton Inc. is a sprawling concern, clearly more than one overbooked man can handle. By employing Sharpton as a prominent figure in its news rotation, MSNBC must own the failings of his empire. A spokeswoman for MSNBC says the network has no comment on the situation.