DOCUMENT: Investigation

Al Sharpton's Secret Work As FBI Informant

Untold story of how activist once aided Mafia probes

Al Sharpton

View Document

Draft FBI Affidavit

FBI Affidavit I

McCalla NYPD

Curington Complaint

DEA Report

Sylvia Rhone

Sylvia Rhone Transcript

Curington Deposition

Buonanno Complaint

Buonanno Cross

Pagano FBI Memos

Dangerfield Warrant

Buonanno FBI Memos

Pertinent Intercept

Canterino FBI Memo

FBI Affidavit II

Morris Levy FBI

Giovanelli Transcript

Sharpton Letter

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.”