With a hidden FBI camera rolling inside a New York hotel suite in 2003, an unsuspecting Rev. Al Sharpton, Democratic candidate for president, spoke candidly.
Sharpton offered to help Philadelphia fund-raiser Ronald A. White win a multimillion-dollar business deal, if White helped him raise $50,000 for politics.
White offered $25,000. "If you bring my guys up on this hedge fund, and I have the right conversation," White said, "I'll give you what you need."
"Cool," Sharpton said.
The Inquirer obtained an account of the May 9, 2003, conversation, which was recorded as part of the Philadelphia City Hall corruption case. The tape helped spark a separate inquiry into Sharpton's 2004 campaign and his civil-rights organization, the National Action Network. The FBI-IRS probe resurfaced publicly Wednesday, when Sharpton aides received subpoenas.
In an interview today, Sharpton said there is "absolutely nothing illegal" about tying business deals to fund-raising because he is not a public official.
"The tapes vindicate me," Sharpton said. "They show that I did not talk about bribing a public official or paying money under the table."
The video was recorded by an FBI camera hidden in a lamp inside Suite 34A at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan. Sharpton and White were introduced by La-Van Hawkins, a Detroit businessman.
At the time, FBI agents were investigating White and Hawkins, suspecting that they were involved in pay-to-play in Philadelphia - raising campaign funds for Mayor Street and others in order to win municipal contracts for favored donors. Later FBI agents in the case infamously placed a bug in Street's office, but it was discovered before it recorded anything.
FBI agents tapping White's phones in 2003 recorded more than 20 conversations between White and Sharpton, most of them related to fund-raising for the presidential campaign and an effort to secure a $40 million pension-fund deal in New York.
About a year later, White, Hawkins and a dozen others, including former City Treasurer Corey Kemp, were indicted in Philadelphia on federal pay-to-play corruption charges.
White died before trial. Hawkins was convicted of fraud and perjury and sentenced to 33 months. Kemp is serving a 10-year sentence for corruption, bribery and fraud.
No charges were brought related to Sharpton or the proposed New York pension-fund deal, which never materialized.
However, as The Inquirer reported in 2005, the New York-based investigation of Sharpton has continued. Sources said agents in that case are examining whether Sharpton violated campaign-finance laws or used money donated to his National Action Network for personal use.
FBI spokesman James Margolin in New York declined to comment today.
When Sharpton and White teamed up in 2003, each had a need and a talent. Sharpton had access to business and government officials, and needed help fund-raising for his fledgling national campaign. White had access to campaign donors and was always looking for connections into business and government deals.
To qualify for matching federal funds in the presidential campaign, Sharpton needed to raise $5,000 in each of 20 states. According to a spreadsheet created by White's office staff, White and Hawkins raised contributions for Sharpton in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania. White solicited funds from donors in Texas, New Jersey, Alabama and Maryland, and made plans to raise money in a half dozen other states.
Some contributors, however, were reluctant to help White contribute to Sharpton because they didn't want their names attached to the controversial preacher in public records. One businessman in Philadelphia is heard on one wiretap expressing such concern. White convinced him to move the money through White's political action committee instead.
On a few calls, Hawkins expressed his concern about Sharpton's shortcomings as a candidate. He was sloppy with campaign finances, Hawkins said, worrying that some campaign funds might get mixed with personal or National Action Network funds.
"He's a train wreck - a plane crash waiting to happen," Hawkins told White.
During the 2003 hotel meeting, Sharpton also discussed the wisdom of raising funds for voter-registration outreach because, unlike candidate contributions, there are no fund-raising or spending limits on them.
In May 2004, the FEC ruled that the Sharpton campaign had to repay $100,000 in matching funds because he spent more than twice as much as allowed of his own money on his campaign.
In the interview today, Sharpton said that he has heard some of the wiretaps and they are not incriminating. He said his campaign finance reports show that he has done nothing wrong.
"It's not illegal for me to help guys get contracts . . . making introductions for Mr. White and Mr. Hawkins, if they help me raise money," Sharpton said. "I'm not a public official."
"You can make tapes sound like whatever you want," he said, "but the timing of this is ridiculous."
Sharpton was referring to his recent protests and commentary about the racial controversy in Jena, La., involving six black teenagers accused of beating a white classmate.
"This is government harassment," he said. "I knew this investigation would come back when we started the Jena protests."
Of the investigation, Sharpton predicted, "It went nowhere three years ago and it's going nowhere now."