No Good Samaritan

Mayor Bloomberg was a staunch advocate for the financial services industry, rushing to Wall Street’s defense after the 2008 crash, and repeatedly throughout his tenure. Whether deriding the Occupy movement or opposing a tax increase on multimillionaires, he was unapologetic in his support for the wealthiest 1 percent. It was like a Rodney Dangerfield routine: Tax-paying rich citizens don’t get no respect! Coupled with tone-deaf claims that the police department “disproportionately stops whites too much and minorities too little,” Bloomberg’s rhetoric earned him the ire of Bill de Blasio, who seized on it to weave the now ubiquitous Tale of Two Cities. 

It’s not yet clear what Mayor de Blasio’s one city might look like. But at times it seems as if he’s traded Bloomberg’s banker favoritism for another kind of exceptionalism in his dealings with the Rev. Al Sharpton. 

In early April a Smoking Gun report revealed new details about Sharpton’s collaboration with the FBI. In the 1980s Sharpton was a confidential informant who met with the Gambino crime family several times to record their conversations on behalf of law enforcement. According to Sharpton, this was a selfless act of civic duty, but the report counters that the FBI had him on a potential drug charge, and flipped him in return for his freedom. 

So it was odd to see Mayor de Blasio stick up for Sharpton’s version of events: “I’m very proud to be his friend. I think he has done a lot of good for the City of New York and this country…. He was asked by the F.B.I. to support their efforts and he agreed to help, and that’s what a citizen should do.” To suggest that Sharpton did anything other than act in his own self-interest is as absurd as Bloomberg’s defense of Jamie Dimon, who took a taxpayer bailout and then got a bonus. The mayor could have simply called it old news without wrapping Sharpton in a patriotic embrace. Instead he continued the fusillade of compliments at the National Action Network’s annual conference, calling the reverend a “blessing” and describing the First Couple as big “fans.” 

Never mind that it doesn’t make sense that anyone would willingly risk his life to tape-record mobsters as many as 10 times; it’s also not how the FBI works. As several former prosecutors explained on background, Good Samaritans cannot simply pick up the phone and volunteer to act as agents of the police. First, there’s a reliability test to establish whether the information is good, and if it can withstand the scrutiny of a judge who may eventually need to sign off on a warrant. Second, the informant must have access. Since organized crime syndicates tend not to meet with strangers off the street, there needs to be a prior relationship to exploit. 

His history with the FBI aside, Sharpton isn’t exactly a pillar of sacrifice and virtue. A December 2011 New York Post article reported that at the time Sharpton owed the IRS $2.6 million in income tax, and nearly $900,000 in state tax. But he doesn’t appear overly concerned about it. He flies first class, has a personal driver, and lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. In recent years he’s toned down his incendiary rhetoric in return for corporate contributions from Coca-Cola and others. Like Bloomberg’s beloved bankers, Sharpton’s transgressions have been washed away, making him a member of just another very privileged class. 

The fact is the mayor’s strong support is in some ways more meaningful than Sharpton’s particular misdeeds. It threatens to undermine his message of a more equal society, and the integrity he brought with him into office. Since winning election, de Blasio has pursued important policies to close the opportunity gap and level the playing field. But by giving special treatment to Sharpton, he’s simply traded whom the Tale of Two Cities is about. 

Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients. 

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