The fiery Rev. Al Sharpton has a new billion-dollar target: pay-television giant Home Box Office. He filed a $1 billion defamation lawsuit in New York last week over HBO's airing portions of a 19-year-old FBI surveillance videotape of him discussing a cocaine deal with an undercover FBI agent.
HBO played the Sharpton tape as part of a Real SportsWith Bryant Gumbel
story investigating former mobster Michael Franzese and his connections to sports corruption in the 1970s and 1980s.
Boxing promoter Don King is the link between Franzese, a former Colombo family captain, and civil-rights activist Sharpton. Franzese alleges that a South American drug dealer looking to launder money through boxing promotions approached him. Franzese says Sharpton was to arrange a meeting between the dealer and King.
The drug dealer was actually an undercover FBI agent, and the tape was part of an FBI investigation into boxing corruption. Sharpton was never charged with any crimes.
HBO Sports spokesman Ray Stallone dismisses the suit as "so silly that it is unworthy of comment." AOL Time Warner, HBO's corporate parent; Real Sports; correspondent Bernard Goldberg; and Franzese are also named as defendants.
Sharpton claims HBO painted a distorted picture by airing only portions of the tape. He contends a second tape exists that exonerates him of any suspicions. His lawyer, Michael A. Hardy, says HBO casts his client in a "false light and [that] is the basis for our defamation lawsuit."
HBO did give Sharpton the opportunity to respond to the tape. In an on-camera interview with Goldberg, Sharpton calls the tape a "total attempt to set up and criminalize people."
Sharpton claims the tapes were leaked to scuttle possible presidential ambitions.
The second tape so far hasn't surfaced in public. HBO says it "would welcome any chance to see it."