Jillian Kay Melchior, National Review, March 11, 2015
As Al Sharpton ran for mayor of New York City in 1997 and for president in 2003, fires at his offices reportedly destroyed critical financial records, and he subsequently failed to comply with tax and campaign filing requirements.
The first fire began in the early hours of April 10, 1997, in a hair-and-nail salon one floor below Sharpton’s campaign headquarters at 70 West 125th Street. From the start, investigators deemed the fire “suspicious” because of “a heavy volume of fire on arrival” and because many of the doors remained unlocked after hours, according to the New York Fire Department’s fire-and-incident report.
As the fire crept upward into Sharpton’s headquarters, it destroyed nearly everything, including computers, files, and campaign records, the Reverend’s spokesperson at the time told Newsday, adding that “we have lost our entire Manhattan operation.” But a source knowledgeable about the investigation tells National Review Online that Sharpton’s office was mostly empty, and that the damage was not extensive.
Top city officials, including then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, said initial suspicions centered on the hair-and-nail salon, not on Sharpton’s campaign, Newsday reported. The fire department sent the case as an arson/explosion investigation to the New York Police Department. By the time of publication of this report, the NYPD had not provided the records requested by National Review Online on December 16, 2014, but it confirmed that the investigation had been closed without an arrest.
FDNY’s report references a “flammable liquid,” and firefighters’ photos of the scene show traces of an incendiary puddle. Another photo captures what appears to be a singed rag that someone is holding next to a fuse box, perhaps because that is where it was found. But a 2003 Newsday article says “the 1997 fire started when a curling iron overheated in an adjoining beauty parlor.” NRO could find no other sources referencing a curling iron as the cause, and the fire department’s reports make no mention of it, either.
As the mayoral campaign continued, Sharpton missed tax and campaign disclosure deadlines.
The 1997 fire occurred five days before Tax Day and, the New York Post reported, “just after Sharpton announced that he would open his financial records.” After the fire, Sharpton said he would seek an extension because crucial financial records had been destroyed. It’s unclear whether that extension was granted.
In early September 1997, the New York City Campaign Finance Board cited Sharpton for accepting political contributions in excess of the limits established in the Campaign Finance Act, the New York Daily News reported.
Six years later, on January 23, 2003–one day after Sharpton filed paperwork to create a presidential exploratory committee–another fire caused heavy damage at National Action Network, located at 1941 Madison Avenue. (The Federal Election Commission (FEC) later determined that Sharpton had actually become a candidate no later than October 2002, although, contrary to law, he had not filed his statement of candidacy until April 2003.)
The battalion chief who responded to the fire initially coded it as suspicious. On the fire-and-incident report, the cause of fire is designated as “NFA [Not Fully Ascertained]–Heat from electrical equipment (Extension Cords).” But by the evening of January 24, the chief fire marshal told the New York Times that “both an eyewitness account and a physical examination by fire marshals point to the cause as accidental.”
Nevertheless, significant oddities surrounded both the fire and the investigation, and the story of the key eyewitness had some holes that were apparently never addressed.
James Kelty, a supervising fire marshal who responded to the 2003 fire, tells NRO he was unexpectedly relieved from the fire investigation. “I was on the fire, and then I wasn’t on the fire; I was on the fire scene, and then I was no longer at the fire scene,” he says, adding that it was unusual.
When NRO told him that the investigative report was only six pages long and accompanied by 38 photographs, Kelty said: “Big fires and fires involving prominent people are generally much more exhaustive. Thirty-eight photos are a drop in the bucket, especially given Sharpton’s notoriety and given the fact that he was running for U.S. president.”
According to the fire-and-incident report, a maintenance man named J. D. Livingston discovered the fire. (His name is listed in the report as both Joseph Dennis Livingstone and Joseph D. Livingston.)
Livingston, who immigrated to the United States from Guyana, died in March 2014. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed to NRO that he was living in the U.S. illegally after overstaying his visa, though it’s unclear when it expired. Carl Redding, who worked with Sharpton but publicly criticized him after a personal falling out, tells me Sharpton paid Livingston under the table. “I always heard that he was unofficially homeless and ended up living at the [National Action] Network,” Redding says.
Another source close to Sharpton described Livingston as a good man who was fiercely loyal to, and heavily dependent on, Sharpton. He said he saw Sharpton pay Livingston in cash, and also alleged that Livingston was living in the office of National Action Network.
In an interview with NRO, Sharpton says Livingston “did some side work with me, and that’s all that I’m willing to say about someone deceased.” He adds: “I didn’t pay anyone under the table. Under what table?” Sharpton says Livingston’s wages were reported and covered in a tax repayment. He refused to show NRO any proof, saying he would “absolutely not” give records for “someone who’s deceased and can’t give permission.” As for Livingston living at National Action Network, Sharpton says, “not to my knowledge.”
According to the fire-and-incident report, Livingston’s interview with fire investigators occurred “in the presence of his attorney, Michael Hardy,” who is also Sharpton’s longtime lawyer. Kelty, the fire marshal who was at the scene initially, tells me that it’s routine for fire marshals to speak with maintenance men or superintendents to collect information about the building. He also said it’s critically important for fire investigators to speak to the first person at the scene of a fire–in this case, Livingston.
Kelty adds, “I could probably count on my hand–and have fingers left over–how many times I have talked to a superintendent or maintenance worker and had an attorney there. It’s just extremely unusual.”