Al Sharpton: Dogged by a sleeping lie
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Don't you hate it when a lie comes back to haunt you 20 years after the fact?
Man, I'd hate to be in the Rev. Al Sharpton's shoes this morning. A mess he helped stir up back in 1987, when he was more agent provocateur than "The O'Reilly Factor" media whore, has come back smellier than ever.
Getting caught in a lie is humiliating enough, but it has to be an unbelievable drag when you're held responsible for a whopper you've never technically told yourself.
In this case, a 15-year-old girl from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., uttered the lie that continues to haunt Rev. Al's waking dreams.
These days, the girl, now within spitting distance of middle age at 35, calls herself Tawana Thompson. When she converted to Islam at the height of her notoriety, Louis Farrakhan dubbed her Maryam Muhammad. Twenty years ago, the world looked on in pity and fascination as Tawana Brawley unfurled an unlikely tale of racism and sexual assault.
Rev. Al, along with Harlem-based attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, represented Ms. Brawley with all the skill of Mr. Magoo stumping for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
There's no point in rehashing the lies Ms. Brawley told, except to say that they could have potentially destroyed the lives of the men she accused of raping her over a four-day period. If convicted at trial, they would have gone to jail for decades.
In 1988, a grand jury released a 170-page report that systematically dismantled Ms. Brawley's story. Dutchess County assistant prosecutor Steven Pagones was exonerated along with several other men. In the pre-O.J. murder trial era, the Tawana Brawley affair was as close as America got to becoming polarized along the tiresome fault lines of race. It was the Scottsboro boys all over again, except this time the boys were white.
It didn't take long for Mr. Pagones to turn the tables on his accusers. He sued Ms. Brawley, Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Mason and Mr. Maddox for defamation. He didn't get the $150 million he asked for, but a jury awarded him $185,000 against Ms. Brawley and $345,000 against her enablers.
To his credit, Rev. Al coughed up his share of the liability -- a relatively paltry $65K. Ms. Brawley never paid a dime of the judgment despite her nursing job somewhere in the South.
Ms. Brawley and her mother, Glenda, refused to testify before the 1988 Dutchess County grand jury. Both skipped town, leaving Mr. Sharpton and the lawyers holding the bag. Mr. Maddox was eventually disbarred. Mr. Mason has since died.
Meanwhile, there's still an outstanding warrant for Glenda Brawley's arrest if she ever steps foot in New York again.
Which brings us to the situation that might cause Rev. Al a lot of lost sleep:
Glenda Brawley still believes that her daughter was sexually assaulted -- and wants to travel to New York next week and reopen the case. She told the New York Daily News that she wants to "help the black community recognize 20 years of struggle" regarding her daughter.
Glenda has asked her old friend Mr. Maddox to send a letter to state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo requesting that she not be busted the second her car hits the Lincoln Tunnel. She's also asked Gov. Eliot Spitzer to unseal files she insists will "prove" her daughter was telling the truth. Glenda wants amnesty and a new trial.
The only thing that could possibly make Mr. Spitzer less popular than giving driver's licenses to illegal aliens would be to reopen the Tawana Brawley mess.
Meanwhile, Rev. Al has a dilemma. His old ally Alton Maddox wants to host Glenda Brawley under the aegis of his United African Movement when -- or if -- she comes to town. Rev. Al would be conspicuous in his absence given all that they've been through. Nothing binds a group like losing a hefty legal judgment together.
But to attend an event that celebrates the crudest hoax in that city's tortured racial history would erode 20 years worth of credibility he's built since his bomb-throwing days.
Rev. Al doesn't want to go from being a guest on "Hannity and Colmes" to being a punch line again. Even Don Imus will make fun of him once his new show begins in a few weeks. Ceding the moral high ground to Mr. Imus would be unthinkable.
Whenever he's asked about Tawana Brawley, Mr. Sharpton is always careful to say he still supports her "perception" of what happened. The morally slippery construct "something happened" indicates the good reverend's continued reliance on being credulous when it suits him.
But if he denounces her, he'll lose all credibility within radical black political circles where Ms. Brawley is still given the benefit of the doubt.
It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for Rev. Al -- but not quite.
First Published November 20, 2007 12:00 am