It’s safe to say that the Rev. Al Sharpton is not a big HBO fan. After Tuesday’s broadcast of the cable channel’s ”Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” which included a story about organized crime involvement in sports that featured a 19-year-old surveillance tape of an undercover FBI agent proposing a cocaine deal to Sharpton, the minister filed a libel lawsuit against HBO, HBO Real Sports, AOL Time Warner (parent company of HBO, as well as of Entertainment Weekly), reporter Bernard Goldberg, and reputed former Mafia capo Michael Franzese. In papers filed in Manhattan Supreme Court on Wednesday, Sharpton sought damages of $1 billion, divided evenly between compensatory and punitive damages, according to published reports.
The tape aired as part of a story on Franzese, who claimed he organized gambling among pro athletes. He said he met Sharpton when the civil rights activist was serving as a go-between for boxing promoter Don King, and that he set up a meeting in 1983 between Sharpton and Victor Quintana, an FBI agent posing as a Latin American businessman interested in promoting fights and selling cocaine on the side. On the tape, as Quintana tells Sharpton what’s in the deal for him, the minister can be heard saying, ”Right,” and ”I hear you.”
Sharpton, however, says he had no idea the conversation would turn to drugs. ”In the middle of conversation he started talking about how he could cut me in on a cocaine deal,” Sharpton told the Associated Press. ”I didn’t know if he was armed. I was scared so I just nodded my head to everything he said and then he left.” He says he also told HBO there was a second tape, one in which he says he told Quintana, ”Don’t ever talk to us about a drug deal.” He also noted that he was never charged with a crime in conjunction with the sting operation and called the airing of the tape part of a smear campaign meant to derail his 2004 presidential bid. ”I will not bend, buckle or bow to a smear campaign,” said Sharpton, who recently made headlines by teaming up with Michael Jackson in the latter’s financial dispute with his record label, Sony.
In a statement, HBO spokesman Raymond Stallone said the suit was ”so silly that it is unworthy of comment.” He insisted that HBO had treated Sharpton fairly. ”The tape we aired is an integral part of the story we presented. We asked Mr. Sharpton for his response and we showed his position,” said Stallone. ”Viewers can judge for themselves. As to Rev. Sharpton’s claim that there is a second videotape that exonerates him, we indicated to him that we would welcome the chance to see it.”