Al Sharpton's Secret Work As FBI Informant
Untold story of how activist once aided probes of NYC wiseguys
APRIL 7--When friends and family members gathered recently at the White House for a private celebration of Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday, one of the invited partygoers was a former paid FBI Mafia informant.
That same man attended February’s state dinner in honor of French President Francois Hollande. He was seated with his girlfriend at a table adjacent to President Barack Obama, who is likely unaware that, according to federal agents, his guest once interacted with members of four of New York City’s five organized crime families. He even secretly taped some of those wiseguys using a briefcase that FBI technicians outfitted with a recording device.
The high-profile Obama supporter was also on the dais atop the U.S. Capitol steps last year when the president was sworn in for a second term. He was seated in front of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two rows behind Beyonce and Jay Z, and about 20 feet from Eric Holder, the country’s top law enforcement officer. As head of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Holder leads an agency that once reported that Obama’s inauguration guest also had La Cosa Nostra contacts beyond Gotham, and engaged in “conversations with LCN members from other parts of the United States.”
The former mob snitch has become a regular in the White House, where he has met with the 44th president in the East Room, the Roosevelt Room, and the Oval Office. He has also attended Obama Christmas parties, speeches, policy announcements, and even watched a Super Bowl with the First Family (an evening the man has called “one of the highlights of my life”). During these gatherings, he has mingled with cabinet members, top Obama aides, military leaders, business executives, and members of Congress. His former confederates were a decidedly dicier lot: ex-convicts, extortionists, heroin traffickers, and mob henchmen. The man’s surreptitious recordings, FBI records show, aided his government handlers in the successful targeting of powerful Mafia figures with nicknames like Benny Eggs, Chin, Fritzy, Corky, and Baldy Dom.
Later this week, Obama will travel to New York and appear in a Manhattan hotel ballroom at the side of the man whom FBI agents primarily referred to as “CI-7”--short for confidential informant #7--in secret court filings. In those documents, investigators vouched for him as a reliable, productive, and accurate source of information about underworld figures.
The ex-informant has been one of Obama’s most unwavering backers, a cheerleader who has nightly bludgeoned the president’s Republican opponents in televised broadsides. For his part, Obama has sought the man’s counsel, embraced him publicly, and saluted his “commitment to fight injustice and inequality.” The president has even commented favorably on his friend’s svelte figure, the physical manifestation of a rehabilitation effort that coincided with Obama’s ascension to the White House. This radical makeover has brought the man wealth, a daily TV show, bespoke suits, a luxury Upper West Side apartment, and a spot on best seller lists.
Most importantly, he has the ear of the President of the United States, an equally remarkable and perplexing achievement for the former FBI asset known as “CI-7,” the Rev. Al Sharpton.
A lengthy investigation by The Smoking Gun has uncovered remarkable details about Sharpton’s past work as an informant for a joint organized crime task force comprised of FBI agents and NYPD detectives, as well as his dealings with an assortment of wiseguys.
Beginning in the mid-1980s and spanning several years, Sharpton’s cooperation was fraught with danger since the FBI’s principal targets were leaders of the Genovese crime family, the country’s largest and most feared Mafia outfit. In addition to aiding the FBI/NYPD task force, which was known as the “Genovese squad,” Sharpton’s cooperation extended to several other investigative agencies.
TSG’s account of Sharpton’s secret life as “CI-7” is based on hundreds of pages of confidential FBI affidavits, documents released by the bureau in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, court records, and extensive interviews with six members of the Genovese squad, as well as other law enforcement officials to whom the activist provided assistance.
Like almost every other FBI informant, Sharpton was solely an information source. The parameters of his cooperation did not include Sharpton ever surfacing publicly or testifying on a witness stand.
Genovese squad investigators--representing both the FBI and NYPD--recalled how Sharpton, now 59, deftly extracted information from wiseguys. In fact, one Gambino crime family figure became so comfortable with the protest leader that he spoke openly--during ten wired face-to-face meetings--about a wide range of mob business, from shylocking and extortions to death threats and the sanity of Vincent “Chin” Gigante, the Genovese boss who long feigned mental illness in a bid to deflect law enforcement scrutiny. As the mafioso expounded on these topics, Sharpton’s briefcase--a specially customized Hartmann model--recorded his every word.
Task force members, who were interviewed separately, spoke on the condition of anonymity when describing Sharpton’s work as an informant and the Genovese squad’s activities. Some of these investigators provided internal FBI documents to a reporter.
Records obtained by TSG show that information gathered by Sharpton was used by federal investigators to help secure court authorization to bug two Genovese family social clubs, including Gigante’s Greenwich Village headquarters, three autos used by crime family leaders, and more than a dozen phone lines. These listening devices and wiretaps were approved during the course of a major racketeering investigation targeting the Genovese family’s hierarchy.
A total of eight separate U.S. District Court judges--presiding in four federal jurisdictions--signed interception orders that were based on sworn FBI affidavits including information gathered by Sharpton. The phones bugged as a result of these court orders included two lines in Gigante’s Manhattan townhouse, the home phone of Genovese captain Dominick “Baldy Dom” Canterino, and the office lines of music industry power Morris Levy, a longtime Genovese family associate. The resulting surreptitious recordings were eventually used to help convict an assortment of Mafia members and associates.
Investigators also used Sharpton’s information in an application for a wiretap on the telephone in the Queens residence of Federico “Fritzy” Giovanelli, a Genovese soldier. Giovanelli was sentenced to 20 years in prison for racketeering following a trial during which those recordings were played for jurors. In a recent interview, the 82-year-old Giovanelli--now three years removed from his latest stint in federal custody--said that he was unaware that Sharpton contributed in any fashion to his phone’s bugging. He then jokingly chided a reporter for inquiring about the civil rights leader’s past. “Poor Sharpton, he cleaned up his life and you want to ruin him,” Giovanelli laughed.
While Sharpton’s acrimonious history with law enforcement--especially the NYPD--rankled some Genovese squad investigators, they nonetheless grudgingly acknowledged in interviews that the activist produced for those he would go on to frequently pillory.
Genovese squad members, however, did not share with Sharpton specific details about how they were using the information he was gathering for them. This is standard practice since FBI affidavits in support of wiretap applications are filed under seal by Department of Justice prosecutors. Still, Sharpton was briefed in advance of his undercover sorties, so he was well aware of the squad’s investigative interest in Gigante and his Mafia cronies.
Sharpton vehemently denies having worked as an FBI informant. He has alleged that claims of government cooperation were attempts by dark forces to stunt his aggressive brand of civil rights advocacy or, perhaps, get him killed. In his most recent book, “The Rejected Stone,” which hit best seller lists following its October 2013 publication, Sharpton claimed to have once been “set up by the government,” whose agents later leaked “false information” that “could have gotten me killed.” He added, “So I have been seriously tested in what I believe over the years.”
In an interview Saturday, Sharpton again denied working as a confidential informant, claiming that his prior cooperation with FBI agents was limited to efforts to prompt investigations of drug dealing in minority communities, as well as the swindling of black artists in the recording industry. He also repeatedly denied being “flipped” by federal agents in the course of an undercover operation. When asked specifically about his recording of the Gambino crime family member, Sharpton was noncommittal: “I’m not saying yes, I’m not saying no.”
If Sharpton’s account is to be believed, he was simply a concerned citizen who voluntarily (and briefly) joined arm-in-arm with federal agents, perhaps risking peril in the process. The other explanation for Sharpton’s cooperation--one that has uniformly been offered by knowledgeable law enforcement agents--presents the reverend in a less noble light. Worried that he could face criminal charges, Sharpton opted for the path of self-preservation and did what the FBI asked. Which is usually how someone is compelled to repeatedly record a gangster discussing murder, extortion, and loan sharking.
Sharpton spoke for an hour in an office at the House of Justice, his Harlem headquarters, where he had just finished addressing a crowd of about 200 people that included his two adult daughters and his second wife (from whom he has been separated for ten years). A few minutes into the interview, Sharpton asked, “Are you taping this?” A TSG reporter answered that he was not recording their interview, but had a digital recorder and wished to do so. Sharpton declined that request.
In the absence of any real examination/exhumation of Sharpton’s past involvement with the FBI and the Mafia, his denials have served the civil rights leader well. Scores of articles and broadcast reports about the Obama-era “rehabilitation” of Sharpton have mentioned his inflammatory past--Tawana Brawley, Crown Heights, Freddy’s Fashion Mart, and various anti-Semitic and homophobic statements. But his organized crime connections and related informant work have received no such scrutiny.
In a “60 Minutes” profile aired three months before the August 2011 launch of Sharpton’s MSNBC show, correspondent Lesley Stahl reported on the “tame” Sharpton’s metamorphosis from “loud mouth activist” to “trusted White House advisor who’s become the president’s go-to black leader.” As for prior underworld entanglements, those were quickly dispatched: “There were allegations of mob ties, never proved,” Stahl flatly declared.
As host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” Sharpton now reluctantly identifies himself as a member of the media, if not actually a journalist. He spends his time at 30 Rockefeller Plaza surrounded by reporters, editors, and researchers committed to accuracy and the exposure of those who violate the public trust. In fact, Sharpton himself delights in a daily feature that seeks to expose liars, hypocrites, and others engaged in deceit (his targets tend to be Republican opponents of the Obama administration). As he wraps this segment, Sharpton points his finger at the camera and addresses his quarry: “Nice try, but we gotcha!”
In addition to his MSNBC post, Sharpton heads the National Action Network, which describes itself as a “Christian activist organization.” Obama, who refers to Sharpton as “Rev” or “Reverend Al,” is scheduled to deliver a keynote address Friday at the group’s annual convention in New York City. Mayor Bill DeBlasio will preside Wednesday over the convention’s ribbon cutting ceremony, while Holder and three Obama cabinet secretaries will deliver speeches.
Sharpton has been a leading supporter of Holder, who spoke at the National Action Network’s 2012 convention and saluted the reverend for “your partnership, your friendship, and also for your tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless, and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill.” Last Friday, Sharpton appeared on a panel at a Department of Justice forum led by Tony West, the agency’s third-ranking official. West thanked Sharpton for his “leadership, day in and day out, on issues of reconciliation and community restoration.”
According to its most recent IRS return, which Sharpton signed in mid-November 2013, the National Action Network pays him $241,402 annually for serving as president and CEO. In return for that hefty salary, Sharpton--who hosts a three-hour daily radio show in addition to his nightly cable TV program--reportedly works a 40-hour week for the not-for-profit (which lists unpaid tax liabilities totaling $813,576).
For longtime observers, the “new” Sharpton’s public prominence and West Wing access is bewildering considering that his history, mob ties included, could charitably be described as checkered. In fact, Obama has banished others guilty of lesser transgressions (see: Wright, Jeremiah).
Sharpton now calls himself a “refined agitator,” an activist no longer prone to incendiary language or careless provocations. Indeed, a Google check confirms that it has been years since he labeled a detractor a “faggot,” used the term “homos,” or derisively referred to Jewish diamond merchants.
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As an “informant in development,” as one federal investigator referred to Sharpton, the protest leader was seen as an intriguing prospective source, since he had significant contacts in politics, boxing, and the music industry.
Before he was “flipped” in the course of an FBI sting operation in 1983, Sharpton had established relationships with promoter Don King, various elected officials, and several powerful New York hoodlums involved in concert promotion, record distribution, and talent management. At the time, the music business was “overrun by hustlers, con artists, black and white,” Sharpton recalled in his 1996 autobiography. A federal agent who was not part of the Genovese squad--but who also used Sharpton as an informant--recalled that “everyone was trying to mine” his music industry ties.
In fact, by any measure, Sharpton himself was a Mafia “associate,” the law enforcement designation given to mob affiliates who, while not initiated, work with and for crime family members. While occupying the lowest rung on the LCN org chart--which is topped by a boss-underboss-consigliere triumvirate--associates far outnumber “made” men, and play central roles in a crime family’s operation, from money-making pursuits to more violent endeavors.
For more than four years, the fact that Sharpton was working as an informant was known only to members of the Genovese squad and a small number of other law enforcement agents. As with any Mafia informant, protecting Sharpton’s identity was crucial to maintaining the viability of ongoing investigations. Not to mention keeping him alive.
For example, an episode recounted by TSG sources highlighted the sensitive nature of Sharpton’s cooperation with the FBI/NYPD task force.
In advance of seeking court authorization to bug a pair of Genovese family social clubs and a Cadillac used by Gigante and Canterino, a draft version of a wiretap affidavit was circulated for review within the Genovese squad, which operated from the FBI’s lower Manhattan headquarters. The 53-page document, which detailed the “probable cause” to believe that listening devices would yield incriminating conversations, concerned some investigators due to the degree to which the activities of Sharpton were described in the document.
While the affidavit prepared by FBI Agent Gerald King and a federal prosecutor only referred to Sharpton as “CI-7,” the document included the name of a Gambino mobster whom Sharpton taped, as well as the dates and details of five of their recorded meetings. Such specificity was problematic since the possibility existed that the affidavit’s finalized version could someday be turned over to defense lawyers in the discovery phase of a criminal trial.
Investigators fretted that Sharpton could easily be unmasked by the Gambino member, who, if ever questioned about his meetings with “CI-7,” would surely realize that Sharpton was the wired informant referred to in the FBI affidavit. That discovery, of course, could have placed Sharpton’s life in grave danger. The Gambino wiseguy, too, likely would have faced trouble, since he was recorded speaking about a wide range of Mafia matters, including Gigante’s illegal operations. The Genovese power--rightly paranoid about bugged phones and listening devices--famously forbid fellow gangsters from even speaking his name. In fact, if a wiseguy had to refer to Gigante during an in-person meeting, a quick stroke of the chin was the acceptable means of identification.
In response to concerns about the King affidavit, the draft, which a source provided to TSG, was rewritten to carefully shroud Sharpton’s work with government agents. The affidavit’s final version--which was submitted to two federal judges--no longer included the disclosure that “CI-7” had “consensually recorded his conversations” with a gangster. The wiseguy’s name was also deleted from the document, as was any reference to the Gambino family or the informant’s sex.
Instead, the revamped affidavit simply noted that “CI-7 reported” to the FBI various details of Genovese family rackets. The actual source of that valuable intelligence about Gigante & Co. had been carefully obscured. As were the details of how that information was obtained via Sharpton’s battery-powered valise.
But despite efforts like this to protect Sharpton, some details of his informant work leaked out in January 1988, when New York Newsday reported that the civil rights activist had cooperated with federal investigations targeting organized crime figures and Don King. Though he reportedly made incriminating admissions to the newspaper, Sharpton quickly issued vehement denials that he had snitched on anyone.
While acknowledging contact with law enforcement officials, Sharpton--then involved in the early stages of the Tawana Brawley hoax--said he sought the help of investigators to combat the crack cocaine epidemic ravaging New York’s poorest communities. Sharpton also claimed to have contacted agents (and pledged his assistance) after a Mafia associate allegedly threatened him over a music industry dispute.
Sharpton asserted that a phone installed in his Brooklyn apartment by federal investigators in mid-1987 was there to serve as a “hotline” for the public to report drug dealing. He flatly denied recording phone conversations at the direction of law enforcement agents. In one radio interview, Sharpton even declared, “We have an ethical thing against wiretapping.”
In fact, Sharpton had been cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn as part of an investigation targeting Don King. According to a source involved with that probe, federal agents “ran him for a couple of months,” during which time Sharpton “did some recordings” via his new home telephone. But the nascent Department of Justice operation was abruptly shuttered in the wake of the New York Newsday story.
The Brooklyn investigators were introduced to Sharpton in late-1987 by Joseph Spinelli, one of the reverend’s former FBI handlers (and one of the agents who initially secured his cooperation with the bureau). While Spinelli had left the FBI for another government post, he still helped facilitate Sharpton’s interaction with other investigators. “Joe was shopping him around,” one source recalled.
For example, in July 1987, Spinelli called a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and offered Sharpton’s assistance with a matter the lawyer was handling. The case involved Salvatore Pisello, a mobbed-up music industry figure who had just been indicted for tax evasion (and whom Sharpton had previously accused of threatening his life).
Referring to Sharpton, ex-prosecutor Marvin Rudnick said in an interview, “I didn’t know who he was” when Spinelli called. In subsequent conversations with Rudnick, Sharpton provided information about Pisello and a related music industry matter that was being scrutinized by Justice Department investigators.
While Sharpton would not prove particularly helpful to Rudnick, the attorney clearly recalled his brief, unorthodox dealings with the New York activist. “I remember having to go to a pay phone to take the call because he didn’t want it to be traced,” Rudnick laughed.
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So why did Sharpton agree to become an FBI informant? And why was he willing to risk the dangers inherent in such cooperation?
“He thought he didn’t have a choice,” one Genovese squad agent recalled.
In the course of an investigation being run by Spinelli and his partner John Pritchard, Sharpton was secretly recorded in meetings with an FBI undercover agent posing as a wealthy drug dealer seeking to promote boxing matches.
As previously reported, Colombo crime family captain Michael Franzese, who knew Sharpton, enlisted the activist’s help in connecting with Don King. Franzese and Sharpton were later surreptitiously filmed during one meeting with the undercover, while Sharpton and Daniel Pagano, a Genovese soldier, were recorded at another sit-down. Pagano’s father Joseph was a Genovese power deeply involved in the entertainment industry (and who also managed the crime family’s rackets in counties north of New York City).
During one meeting with Sharpton, the undercover agent offered to get him "pure coke" at $35,000 a kilo. As the phony drug kingpin spoke, Sharpton nodded his head and said, “I hear you.” When the undercover promised Sharpton a 10 percent finder’s fee if he could arrange the purchase of several kilos, the reverend referred to an unnamed buyer and said, “If he’s gonna do it, he’ll do it much more than that.” The FBI agent steered the conversation toward the possible procurement of cocaine, sources said, since investigators believed that Sharpton acquaintance Daniel Pagano--who was not present--was looking to consummate drug deals. Joseph Pagano, an East Harlem native who rose through a Genovese crew notorious for narcotics trafficking, spent nearly seven years in federal prison for heroin distribution.
While Sharpton did not explicitly offer to arrange a drug deal, some investigators thought his interaction with the undercover agent could be construed as a violation of federal conspiracy laws. Though an actual prosecution, an ex-FBI agent acknowledged, would have been “a reach,” agents decided to approach Sharpton and attempt to “flip” the activist, who was then shy of his 30th birthday. In light of Sharpton’s relationship with Don King, FBI agents wanted his help in connection with the bureau’s three-year-old boxing investigation, code named “Crown Royal” and headed by Spinelli and Pritchard.
The FBI agents confronted Sharpton with the undercover videos and warned that he could face criminal charges as a result of the secret recordings. Sharpton, of course, could have walked out and ran to King, Franzese, or Pagano and reported the FBI approach (and the fact that drug dealer “Victor Quintana” was actually a federal agent).
In subsequent denials that he had been “flipped,” Sharpton has contended that he stiffened in the face of the FBI agents, meeting their bluff with bluster and bravado. He claimed to have turned away Spinelli & Co., daring them to “Indict me” and “Prosecute.” Sharpton has complained that the seasoned investigators were “trying to sting me, entrap me…a young minister.”
In fact, Sharpton fell for the FBI ruse and agreed to cooperate, a far-reaching decision he made without input from a lawyer, according to sources. “I think there was some fear [of prosecution] on his part,” recalled a former federal agent. In a TSG interview, Sharpton claimed that he rebuffed the FBI agents, who, he added, threatened to serve him with a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury investigating King. After being confronted by the bureau, Sharpton said he consulted with an attorney (whom he declined to identify).
Following bureau guidelines, agents formally opened a “137” informant file on Sharpton, a move that was approved by FBI supervisors, according to several sources. Agents anticipated using Sharpton in the “Crown Royal” case focusing on King, but during initial debriefings of their new recruit, it became clear that his contacts in the music business were equally appealing.
Sharpton had met James Brown in the mid-70s, and became extremely close to the R&B superstar. He worked for and traveled with the mercurial performer, married one of Brown’s backup singers, and wore the same processed hairdo as the entertainer. Like Brown, Sharpton would sometimes even wear a cowboy hat atop his tribute conk.
It was first through executives at Spring Records, a small Manhattan-based label affiliated with Brown, that Sharpton--who worked from the firm’s office--was introduced to various wiseguys, including Franzese. His circle of mob contacts would grow to include, among others, the Paganos, Carmine DeNoia, an imposing Pagano associate known as “Wassel,” and Joseph “Joe Bana” Buonanno, a Gambino crime family figure involved in record distribution and production.
At one point before he was “flipped,” Sharpton participated in a mob scheme to create a business front that would seek a share of lucrative Con Edison set-asides intended for minority-owned businesses. That deal, which involved garbage collection contracts, cratered when the power company determined that Sharpton’s silent partner was Genovese captain Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello. Details of the Con Ed plot emerged at a federal criminal trial of Ianniello and his business partner Benjamin Cohen. It was Cohen, who worked across the hall from Spring Records, who recruited Sharpton for the mob garbage gambit.
After his attempted detour into waste management, Sharpton returned his focus to the music industry, which, as he observed in his first book, “is an extremely dirty endeavor, because it is a cash business.” Sharpton continued, “Music is a street business, and that’s where organized crime is, on the street.” Still, he noted, “I wanted to learn more.”
One of Sharpton’s teachers was an ex-con named Robert Curington, a music producer with a questionable history.
Curington, a standout running back at North Carolina Central University, played for several pro teams until injuries forced his retirement in 1969. He transitioned into music management and teamed with legendary WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker to promote concerts featuring R&B acts like Barry White, The Dramatics, and The O’Jays. At the time, Curington had a desk inside the Broadway office of Calla Records, a small soul label headed by Nate McCalla, a Morris Levy bodyguard/sidekick. McCalla, who was murdered in 1980, was, according to an NYPD report, also connected with Colombo crime family underboss John “Sonny” Franzese, father of Michael.
In addition to his music pursuits, Curington also distributed heroin, according to Drug Enforcement Administration records.
Curington was twice indicted on federal narcotics trafficking charges. After being acquitted in a 1975 case, he was arrested again in 1977 after agents found a kilo of heroin inside a briefcase in a cream-colored Thunderbird carrying Curington and pal Frank Townsend, DEA agents reported.
According to prosecution filings in the second case, federal agents had twice observed Curington “transacting sales of heroin with a DEA informant” months prior to his arrest with Townsend. In a court opinion, a federal judge declared that the men “were known by the DEA agents to be major narcotics traffickers.” Curington was more charitable in his description of Townsend, whom he identified in one court filing as a fellow concert promoter who was “also in the adhesives business.”
After a mistrial, Curington pleaded guilty to a single count related to the receipt of 480 bars of mannite, which traffickers use to cut heroin. In August 1978, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison on the felony charge, and ordered to serve three years of “special parole” upon his release from custody. The mannite, according to court and DEA records, had been delivered by an undercover agent to the Upper West Side apartment of Curington’s girlfriend.
Curington, who was married with two young daughters, was also dating Sylvia Rhone after meeting the 25-year-old at Buddah Records, where she worked as an assistant. As a DEA informant sought to arrange the mannite delivery, he called Rhone in an effort to locate Curington. The informant told Rhone that Curington “asked me to get something for him and I contacted these people and I got it for him…and I’m sitting on it and holding it,” according to a DEA transcript of the recorded conversation. “Well, I think you should keep trying you know,” Rhone replied.
Rhone, who was not charged in the narcotics case, would later become the music industry’s most influential female executive. Now 62, Rhone has previously headed the Elektra Entertainment Group and Universal Motown Records. Last month, she was appointed president of Epic Records, whose artist roster includes Michael Jackson, Prince, Outkast, and Ozzy Osbourne.
While Curington was helping Rhone pay the rent on her West 90th Street apartment, his wife and children were living in New Jersey. As he explained in a letter to his sentencing judge, Curington’s “heart was in New York and the hearth was in New Jersey.”
Curington’s kin had decamped to the Garden State after two gunmen forced their way into the family’s Upper East Side apartment and demanded money. One of the intruders accompanied Curington to a Chemical Bank branch, where he retrieved $11,000 from a safe deposit box. The other gunman held Curington’s pregnant wife hostage in the apartment until his partner received the cash. When Curington returned to his home, he found his wife tied to a chair, but otherwise unharmed. The gunmen, dressed as maintenance workers, also stole nearly $4000 in jewelry.
A New York Times story about the home invasion described Curington as a “musical booking agent,” but made no mention that the crime appeared to be a by-product of his other business interests.
In recent interviews, Curington, 72, described the mobbed-up Levy as his “rabbi.” Remarking on the wide influence of the Genovese crime family associate, who was worth $59 million at the time of his death, Curington said, “We all served the same God.” Curington, who was valued as a record promoter due to his friendship with Crocker, also spoke of working closely with Buonanno, a former Levy partner, and meeting with Joseph Pagano to get the Genovese soldier’s approval for certain music business endeavors.
As for Sharpton, Curington said that he worked closely with the activist when Sharpton was “young and stupid and broke” and seeking to pressure large music labels and concert promoters into spending more money in the black community. Sharpton threatened to organize pickets and boycotts unless a target handed over money--usually in the form of a contribution to the National Youth Movement, the predecessor organization to Sharpton’s National Action Network. Sometimes, a block of concert tickets could also quash a protest.
The youth group’s finances were in shambles, and Sharpton never bothered to file tax returns or New York State disclosure forms for the not-for-profit. Curington, who Sharpton named the organization’s “Vice President of Industrial Affairs,” helped the preacher organize demonstrations during which Sharpton splashed red paint on buildings that he identified as crack houses. Amidst all the newspaper and TV coverage of Sharpton’s stunts, nobody noticed that the reverend’s sidekick was a convicted felon familiar with the wholesale end of the narcotics business.
While working with Sharpton, Curington was also partners with Buonanno, who owned a thriving record distribution business headquartered in an upper Manhattan warehouse, as well as several retail record stores. Curington and Buonanno, a volatile chain smoker, operated the Bullseye and Friends & Co. record labels, which specialized in Latin, Disco, and R&B releases. They shared producing credits on singer Esther Williams’s 1981 album “Inside of Me,” with Buonanno identified in the liner notes by his alias, “Joe Bana.”
Of the two partners, Curington had the “ears” and musical ability. Buonanno, as Curington testified in a 2008 civil deposition, was not “musically inclined.” Curington added that Buonanno “spoke heavy Italian. He was a wise guy.”
Buonanno grew up in East Harlem with Joseph Pagano, “Wassel” DeNoia, and an assortment of future hoodlums. He dropped out of high school after two years and joined the Marine Corps in 1943, only to soon go AWOL. Buonanno was subsequently arrested, court martialed, and sentenced to three years in prison, according to court records. He served about a year in custody and rejoined the Corps for 18 months of post-war service (which was split between China, Japan, Guam, and the Caroline Islands). He came back to New York and worked as a salvage operator and trucker before landing a job as general manager of an East Harlem-based garbage company owned by his uncles.
Buonanno returned to federal custody in 1961 for his role in the sale of nearly half-a-kilo of heroin to an undercover Treasury Department agent (who paid about $6000 for the drug during a meet at a Queens motel). At trial, Buonanno, then 35, made it seem he was a naïf when it came to narcotics. During cross-examination by a federal prosecutor, Buonanno was asked, “Do you know what junk is?” He replied, “Before this courtroom, I always thought it took place in the junk shop.” In reply to a inquiry about his knowledge of heroin, Buonanno testified, “I read about it in the papers.”
A federal jury later convicted both Buonanno and Francis Kenny on a pair of felony drug charges. Buonanno, though, handled the guilty verdict better than his 28-year-old codefendant. Immediately following the duo’s conviction, Kenny, while being escorted by a pair of marshals to a courthouse jail cell, broke free and dove over a stairway bannister, plunging about three floors to his death.
Sentenced to five years in custody, Buonanno did some of that time in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania lockup where “Chin” Gigante was concurrently incarcerated for heroin distribution, according to federal Bureau of Prisons records.
Buonanno did not, however, serve his full sentence, thanks to a successful petition for executive clemency that argued he played a limited role in the heroin transaction. In a memo written two weeks after his brother was assassinated, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy noted that he was willing to give Buonanno “some benefit of doubt,” and recommended that the felon’s sentence be immediately commuted. In March 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson granted Buonanno’s clemency bid, springing him from prison a year early.
After Sharpton agreed to cooperate with the FBI, agents debriefed him in an effort to identify avenues of investigation for which he could be helpful. Initially, the bureau adopted a “shotgun approach” when it came to their new confidential source, recalled one Genovese squad member. Sharpton, the investigator added, was an “informant in development” whom agents sent out to gather information from a wide variety of contacts. While Sharpton circulated in several target-rich environments, his greatest value would prove to involve mobsters.
Sharpton told his FBI handlers about his prior involvement with several Mafia figures, including Genovese soldier Joseph Pagano, whose entertainment industry investments spanned decades. According to FBI files, Pagano--who federal agents suspected of involvement in several underworld hits--once used the Copacabana nightclub as his de facto office, and had interests in talent management and booking firms.
Bureau sources reported that Pagano controlled singer Sammy Davis Jr., engaged in kickback schemes with several Columbia Records executives, had been offered an ownership interest in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and even “lost a big roll [of money] to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.” These pursuits were slightly more glamorous than Pagano’s shylock book in Pomona or his numbers operation in Mamaroneck.
In addition to probing Pagano’s racketeering activity, agents even sought to substantiate an informant report about the mobster’s private life. The bureau’s J. Edgar Hoover-era source indicated that when Pagano was jailed in upstate New York’s Sing Sing prison, he turned gay after engaging in “homosexual activities.”
Pagano was also extremely close to Rodney Dangerfield, who performed at the wiseguy-choked 1973 nuptials of the hoodlum’s son Daniel, as well as the 1977 wedding of Pagano’s daughter, according to FBI records.
Before his comedy career took off, Dangerfield--then known as Jack Roy--sold aluminum siding door-to-door, a tin man who pleaded guilty in 1955 to six criminal charges after investigators determined that he was fraudulently securing Federal Housing Administration loans in the names of customers. Dangerfield received a one-year suspended prison sentence and probation for those crimes (the disclosure of which the comedian successfully kept under wraps).
So, like Pagano, Dangerfield was a convicted felon who knew what it was like to be investigated by the FBI. In fact, the young agent who arrested Dangerfield went on to spend more than a decade heading the organized crime division in the FBI’s New York City headquarters.
Sharpton told investigators that he thought Pagano felt “indebted” to him because he once helped broker a business meeting for Pagano with Muhammad Ali and representatives of the boxer, who was then retired. Sharpton had also met with Pagano at a National Association of Recording Merchandisers convention in Florida and at the wiseguy’s residence. Additionally, Sharpton met with Pagano’s son Daniel in Florida, at a Manhattan office, and the Stage Deli.
Sharpton also relayed to agents one of the elder Pagano’s favorite Dangerfield stories. The comedian, Pagano told Sharpton, spun a tale about how he was once pressured by a mobster who was trying to move in on a nightclub the performer owned. Dangerfield claimed the hoodlum demanded to know who the entertainer was “with,” shorthand for someone’s Mafia affiliation. “What do you mean? I’m here with my brother,” the clueless Dangerfield replied. The flustered mobster then reworded his inquiry, saying, “No, I mean who’s your rabbi?” To which the star answered, “Rabbi Horowitz!” The pair’s back-and-forth abruptly ended, Dangerfield claimed, with him getting smacked in the mouth. The story, apocryphal as it may have been, was a hit among underworld audiences.
After Sharpton’s initial debriefings were completed, his role with the FBI transitioned, as one investigator recalled, from “informational to operational.” This shift roughly coincided with the formation of the first Joint Organized Crime Task Force, which paired FBI agents with New York City detectives (each agency initially contributed about six investigators and a couple of cars to the task force).
The group, which would come to be called the “Genovese squad,” was headed by Henry Flinter, a veteran NYPD investigator, and FBI Agent John Pritchard, who was Sharpton's handler. In this role, Pritchard would occasionally pay Sharpton small amounts of money, according to a Genovese squad member.
As the task force ramped up, its members reviewed both FBI and NYPD files, as well as informant, physical surveillance, and electronic surveillance reports. As a result, the squad’s first target became clear: Vincent “Chin” Gigante. The feared mob boss had eluded prosecution for 20 years, a period during which he rose to power within the crime family named after Vito Genovese (for whom Gigante once worked as a chauffeur/bodyguard).
The Genovese squad’s investigative plan was simple: Gather up fresh intelligence on the illegal activities of Gigante and his crew, then use that material to secure court-authorized listening devices that could yield valuable evidence against Mafia members and associates. Recalling the task force’s early investigative steps, one NYPD representative said, “We were building towards a wire.”
And that is where Al Sharpton entered the picture.
Investigators were particularly interested in the relationship Morris Levy had with the Genovese family’s leadership. The music industry power, who founded the legendary Birdland jazz club, owned Roulette Records and the Strawberries chain of retail music stores, and had muscled his way into control of the publishing rights of a massive song catalog.
Levy was also notorious for hijacking songwriting credits in order to guarantee himself ongoing royalty payments. Most famously, he claimed to have co-written “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” with 13-year-old Frankie Lymon. The mogul, who made a career of gypping R&B artists, also held a stake in Sugar Hill Records, the pioneering New Jersey rap label whose artists included Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Despite being married and divorced five times, Levy was still worth in excess of $50 million, and had become the most valuable of underworld commodities--a reliable “earner.”
Levy was closely aligned with Thomas “Tommy Ryan” Eboli, a Genovese captain who ran the family’s Greenwich Village crew, which included Gigante and two of his brothers. Eboli, who vacationed in Italy with Levy and had a stake in several of his companies, was rubbed out in 1972, two years after becoming the family’s acting boss. Control of Levy eventually passed to Gigante and his older brother Mario.
Another Gigante sibling was also extremely close to Levy. Father Louis Gigante frequently socialized with the businessman, who gave the Roman Catholic priest a small property adjacent to his 1500-acre “Sunnyview Farm” in upstate Ghent, New York (which Levy used to entertain top record company executives, as well as the likes of McCalla, DeNoia, Curington, and Buonanno). Along with the free acre of land, Levy gave the priest a $32,000 mortgage at half the prevailing interest rate, according to real estate records. Gigante then built a ranch-style home on his property, which slopes down to a large pond.
[Though Sharpton never met “Chin” Gigante or his two brothers who were also Genovese members, the reverend did once cross paths with Father Gigante at the Brooklyn federal courthouse. Sharpton was there in support of a Demoratic congressman on trial, while Gigante was at the opposite end of the sixth floor attending his brother’s racketeering trial. During a break in both cases, Gigante--who himself was once know for staging street protests--approached Sharpton and introduced himself. The men shook hands and spoke briefly, out of earshot of a reporter.]
While Sharpton was circulating among mob-tied music industry figures, the Genovese squad was scrambling to develop background dossiers on their informant’s new acquaintances.
Investigators specifically focused on Buonanno, who had once been partners in M.R.J. Record Distributors with Levy and Eboli. In interviews, several Genovese squad members said that Daniel Pagano introduced Sharpton to Buonanno, effectively vouching for the activist. Curington, on the other hand, told TSG that he made the introduction.
In search of background on Buonanno, Genovese squad members reviewed FBI files that yielded little more than the New Jersey resident’s affiliation with the Gambino family, and the fact that agents had interviewed him years earlier about his sale of counterfeit Bob Dylan records. Buonanno--who told agents his name was “Joe Bana”--was not charged in connection with that piracy probe.
As detailed in a series of FBI memos, the Genovese squad first asked a supervisor in the bureau’s Newark office for information on Buonanno’s telephone number. Then squad members began surveilling Buonanno’s tidy split-level home in leafy New Milford, where a BMW and Mercedes-Benz were parked in the driveway. At one point, agents were able to photograph the balding wiseguy, who was partial to zipper jackets. Each of the FBI memos noted that information about Buonanno was being developed in the course of a racketeering investigation of Gigante and his Genovese crew.
In a second 1984 memo seeking help from Newark agents, a Genovese squad member wrote that Buonanno had recently been seen with Joe Pagano and another member of the Genovese family. Buonanno, the agent wrote, was affiliated with the recording industry in New York City, and was allegedly reported to be a made man “afforded a great deal of respect.”
About two months after the Genovese squad began researching Buonanno, investigators decided it was time that their “shotgun approach” with Sharpton directed some spray at the Gambino crime family figure.
Carrying the wired briefcase, Sharpton met with Buonanno on a Wednesday afternoon and recorded their conversation. While it was a short and uneventful encounter, the pair’s next meeting would prove valuable for the Genovese squad.
Three weeks after their first meeting, Buonanno opened up to Sharpton about Levy’s affiliation with “Chin” Gigante, as well as his own rocky partnership with Levy and Eboli. That business relationship soured, Buonanno recalled, after Levy accused Buonanno’s brother of stealing from their record distribution company. Buonanno told Sharpton that Levy asked Eboli to murder his brother, a request that was brought before the mob’s ruling “Commission” since two different Mafia families were involved in the dispute. Buonanno recounted that Levy’s hit demand was ultimately denied, according to an FBI summary of the second taped Sharpton-Buonanno meeting.
Over the following months, Sharpton met with Buonanno eight more times, surreptitiously recording the Gambino member on each occasion. During these encounters, an expansive Buonanno spoke about Gigante’s stranglehold on Levy, the hoodlum’s share of Levy’s retail chain, and how the businessman put up money for members of Gigante’s crew to purchase real estate.
Buonanno also told Sharpton that Joseph Pagano had, over the prior two years, sought to have Levy killed due to his intercession in an extortion scheme. While that beef was eventually settled without bloodshed, said Buonanno, Levy was ordered to pay Pagano $100,000 following a Genovese family sit-down. Confiding that Levy had frequently tried to end his relationship with the Genovese gang, Buonanno told Sharpton that the wealthy businessman “has only one way out.” Buonanno then “gestured like someone pointing a gun and pulling the trigger,” according to an FBI affidavit.
During one recorded meeting, Buonanno said that he had “learned a lot” from mob boss Carlo Gambino, whom he credited with shaping his career. He also spoke with Sharpton about a broad range of other Mafia topics, from loan sharks and numbers runners to a proposed African diamond deal and Gigante’s purported illiteracy.
Buonanno told Sharpton that he was “in the joint with ‘Chin,’” adding that the Genovese boss “hates everyone not Italian.” He also claimed that Gigante “was present” at the Eboli rubout to “make sure it was done right,” since his Greenwich Village crew “hated Tommy Ryan.” Gigante, Buonanno declared, “is a throwback to 1930’s mobsters,” according to an FBI summary.
Recalling Sharpton’s taping of Buonanno, an NYPD representative on the Genovese squad marveled, “Joe Bana just gave him a whole insight into how ‘Chin’ and Morris operated.” The source told of serving on a surveillance team during one Sharpton-Buonanno meeting at a Manhattan restaurant. The investigator accompanied squad leaders Pritchard and Flinter to a spot several blocks from the Upper East Side eatery, where they met up with Sharpton and handed him the wired briefcase. After eyeballing the restaurant while Sharpton was inside, the task force members reconnected with their informant after the meeting and retrieved the briefcase.
Sharpton, whose handlers prepped him in advance of each Buonanno meeting, was also debriefed following those encounters. Each of his tapes was reviewed by multiple investigators, and one agent was responsible for preparing a detailed written recap of what was discussed on the recordings.
Known as a “Summary of Pertinent Intercept,” those individual documents were released to TSG in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the FBI. Before turning over the records, however, bureau officials redacted Sharpton’s name from the material (click here to view a representative report). Since Buonanno is deceased, his name appears in the reports because he is no longer entitled to Privacy Act protections. The “Non-telephone” intercept summaries were not contained in Buonanno’s personal FBI dossier, but rather in separate files related to the racketeering investigation of Gigante and his Genovese cohorts.
When asked about Sharpton’s ability to draw out Buonanno on sensitive mob matters, a Genovese squad investigator said the informant excelled at “playing dumb.” But that analysis fails to recognize that Sharpton is quick on his feet and has been a gifted extemporaneous speaker since his days as a young Pentecostal “wonder preacher.” It is not hard to imagine that Sharpton could have easily kept his apprehensions in check and got Buonanno talking.
[Though he has become more disciplined and less voluble, Sharpton has always been personable and easy to talk to, as most journalists could attest. Though he blamed this reporter for instigating a criminal investigation that resulted in his indictment for tax evasion, Sharpton never failed to accept subsequent phone calls or lunch invitations. In fact, he even made an appearance at this reporter’s 1995 bachelor party, invited by friends of the groom, who was not told Sharpton would be a surprise guest.]
During the months that Sharpton was secretly recording Buonanno, he was simultaneously agitating for a role in a lucrative concert tour featuring Michael Jackson and his brothers. Though Don King was involved in the promotion of the “Victory Tour” of stadiums in the U.S. and Canada, Sharpton argued that the Jacksons were not giving enough back to the community that supported them since their days on the “black chitlin’ circuit.”
In the face of boycott threats, Sharpton was named to head the Jackson tour’s “Pride Patrol,” a hastily assembled community outreach program. In his autobiography, Sharpton wrote that he was given a $500,000 budget to cover the distribution of free tickets during the 55-concert tour. He also claimed to have used some of the funds to “make donations” and hire poor kids to work security in the 22 cities the Jacksons visited. At one tour stop, a sweatsuit-clad Sharpton and some “Pride Patrol” enlistees presented Jackson with a framed certificate proclaiming that, “The Victory Tour Did Not Sell Out.”
“I was later accused of extorting money from the Jacksons,” wrote Sharpton, who also was accused of scalping “Victory Tour” tickets. He denied those charges.
Genovese squad members were aware of their informant’s “Victory Tour” involvement, since Sharpton was reporting back on his dealings with King. At one point, FBI agents learned that Sharpton could possibly accompany Michael Jackson to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Ronald Reagan. The prospect of allowing an active FBI informant to enter the White House--without telling anyone of Sharpton’s secret status as a cooperator--caused unease with FBI brass.
White House records of Jackson’s meeting with Reagan, which came two months before the “Victory Tour” launch, show that Sharpton was not among the singer’s traveling party that May morning. An FBI source could not recall if investigators asked Sharpton not to attend the South Lawn ceremony, or whether he ultimately did not rate Jackson’s guest list.
The “Victory Tour” sinecure came at an opportune time for the unemployed Sharpton since he was not flush--occasional payments from his FBI handler amounted to little more than “walking-around” money, as one investigator recalled. In fact, Curington said, Sharpton actually had to borrow money from Buonanno so that he could travel to join the Jackson tour (where promoters only disbursed money after concerts).
Curington, who began working with Buonanno in 1975, said that he thought his partner wanted Sharpton’s help in getting involved with the “Victory Tour.” Curington said Buonanno also believed Sharpton could somehow help him get a particular artist signed to a music label. When TSG first spoke with Curington last year, he said it was “no secret” that Buonanno was a “wiseguy.” He then added, unprompted, “I can’t say what he did with the Gambinos.” A reporter had not previously specified Buonanno’s crime family affiliation.
Buonanno, said Curington, had a low opinion of Sharpton, and called the 300-pound preacher a “nose picker” behind his back. The gangster, who died of throat cancer in 1998, might have resorted to harsher actions had he ever learned about Sharpton’s secret life as “CI-7.”
Buonanno, said Curington, had a low opinion of Sharpton, and called the 300-pound preacher a “nose picker” behind his back. The gangster, who died of throat cancer in 1998, might have resorted to harsher actions had he ever learned about Sharpton’s secret life as “CI-7.”
Just FYI, the link has pictures and links. It's easier to rwad as well because it's three pages.
In reply to this post by MrJayDub
@JayDub. Good story. A very interesting read. I always thought the Rev. Al was just a loud mouth kook.
Words are powerful weapons, be careful how you use them.
In reply to this post by MrJayDub
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Thanks, I'm glad you all enjoyed it. It's a fasinating story.
The Itallian Mob does not have nearly as much pull as they did in the old days, but I wonder if they will try to kill him. He ratted on guys from 4 of the 5 famalies in NY. Somebody wants him dead for sure, I'm just not aure if they have the ability to touch him. Seems like the Itallian Mob is starting to come back a little stronger in recent years though.
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In reply to this post by DD
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Hijole! I'm guessing that Rev. Al will find that some old friends are going to get scarce .... "Who" can ever trust this rata , after reading the posted article?
I sure would not want to be within 10 miles of this RAT for fear of the negative implications of association.
There is a DICTUM in the underworld that "once a snitch, always a snitch."
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