Fact Check

Does Al Sharpton Owe Millions in Back Taxes?

Mr. Sharpton said the federal liens resulted from a demand by the I.R.S. that he pay taxes on earnings from speaking engagements.

Published Dec 9, 2014

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Image Via a katz / Shutterstock.com
Al Sharpton owes more than four million dollars in unpaid taxes.

On 18 November 2014, the New York Times published an article titled "As Sharpton Rose, So Did His Unpaid Taxes" asserting more than $4.5 million in current state and federal tax liens had been taken out against the civil rights activist and his for-profit businesses. That item echoed a previous article published in August of 2014 by the New York Post titled "Sharpton Demands Accountability, But Still Owes Millions in Back Taxes." Both articles stated records reviewed by the respective publications showed Sharpton owed millions of dollars to state and federal agencies in unpaid taxes, with the Post reporting:

Sharpton himself owes New York state $806,875 and has federal liens for unpaid personal income taxes against him totaling $2.6 million, records show.

The Harlem-based NAN owed $813,576 to the federal government at the end of 2012, according to the most recent filings for the group.

Sharpton's company, Rev-Al Communications, owes $447,826 to the state. His Bo-Spanky Consulting firm has only $18.21 in outstanding debt, according to state records.

The Post went on to quote Sharpton as disputing the size of the tax debt but not denying its existence. That article did not specify which records were reviewed to arrive at the sum claimed by its writers ($4.7 million in total), whether the records they claimed to review were public or private, or how the records were obtained.

The New York Times report was similarly non-specific about Sharpton's tax debts. That article went into significant detail about Sharpton's rise to prominence as well as his known fiscal history bit admitted verifying precise dollar amounts of what Sharpton might or might not owe to federal or state tax agencies was difficult:

Mr. Sharpton said the federal liens resulted from a demand by the I.R.S. that he pay taxes on earnings from speaking engagements that he had turned over to National Action Network. He said he was up to date on payment plans for both the federal and state liens, so, he said, the outstanding balance was much lower than records showed.

But according to state officials, his balance on the state liens is actually $220,000 greater now than when they were first filed during the years 2008 through 2010. A spokesman for the State Department of Taxation and Finance said state law did not allow him to provide any further details.

An I.R.S. spokesman said federal law prohibited the agency from providing information about individual taxpayers.

One day later, the New York Times published a follow-up article titled "Al Sharpton Criticizes New York Times Report on Unpaid Taxes." That report included a response from Sharpton stating the paper's initial profile included information that was "misleading and totally out of context."

The second Times article stated Sharpton admitted to accruing tax bills but disputed the accuracy of both the reported amounts owed and the actual assessment of taxes owed, as well as whether the information was current:

He said that the liens had been paid down, although he declined to say by how much, and that he was "current on all taxes" he was obligated to pay under settlement agreements with tax authorities.

"We're talking about old taxes," he said, adding: "We're not talking about anything new. So all of this, as if I'm not paying taxes while I'm doing whatever I'm doing, it reads all right, but it just is not true."

State and federal tax records show, however, that the liens against Mr. Sharpton and his businesses remain active, meaning they have not been completely paid off. The article also noted that Mr. Sharpton had said in an interview that he had paid off some of the debt.

Al Sharpton confirmed he owes or has owed tax debts to federal and state authorities at some point, but the actual balance of those debts is information to which the news media are not directly privy as tax agencies at both the state and federal level are unable to confirm or deny the actual amounts in question, the rate at which the debt was repaid or is being repaid, and whether or not Sharpton currently owes money to either government tax agency. (The reported size of his tax debt appears to have been inferred, in part or in whole, from the total of the liens taken out against him, which may or may not be an accurate gauge of the overall size of his debt.)

Sharpton's role at the helm of more than one entity (both for-profit and non-profit organizations) has created further ambiguity regarding which reported sums constitute personal tax debts and which would fall under the umbrella of business tax matters. Sharpton (along with the majority of businessmen) generally delegate taxes, payroll, and related matters to accountants or other financial advisors, so how involved Sharpton might have been with unpaid business taxes is also uncertain. While Sharpton certainly has owed significant amounts of delinquent taxes, it's difficult to verify at this point whether his debts are as high as reported or whether the stated amounts are current.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.

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