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Consumer Reports

Question$ being raised about Sharpton's finances | (KRT) Like his rivals for president, the Rev. Al Sharpton has consultants, a spokesman, a Web site and a heavy travel schedule, visiting more than 80 cities by his count in just a few months.

What the preacher doesn't have is much in the way of campaign expenses.

Although some of his Democratic opponents have spent more than a million dollars so far, Sharpton's campaign filings say he has spent only $54,500 of $114,000 in campaign donations - and nearly half was for one splashy event in Washington.

But a New York Daily News examination of Sharpton's campaign finances raises questions about whether he has disclosed all his spending as required by law and whether he has used paid speeches, a book tour and his nonprofit National Action Network to improperly subsidize his presidential ambitions.

Sharpton and his campaign manager, Frank Watkins, insist no violations of federal election law have occurred.

But when it comes to Sharpton's finances, there often are more questions than answers.

He's the only candidate who once said under oath that he didn't own his suits but only had "access" to them.

There was his indictment and acquittal on charges of tax fraud and grand larceny. And he pleaded guilty in 1993 to failing to file a tax return, a misdemeanor. Still, in races for mayor and Senate, Sharpton proved he can stump on a shoestring. He does no costly TV advertising or polling. But the cost of tooling around the five boroughs or the whole state is small change next to the expense of a national candidacy.

And by December 2002, Sharpton was boasting that he already had swept through 80 cities to gauge support, according to an interview he gave to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Among the trips: the National Conference of Black Elected Officials in Salt Lake City.

Sharpton has visited at least 20 more cities this year, including one visit to Iowa, two treks to New Hampshire and three to South Carolina - all key primary or caucus states. There also was a March 15 speech to 2,000 Democrats in Sacramento, Calif., and at least four visits to Washington.

But he has billed few travel or lodging expenses to his campaign, except for a few plane tickets, $4,430 to rent a jet (apparently to visit New Hampshire), and $5,361 in expenses at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show.

Instead, Watkins acknowledged, Sharpton's travels largely were paid for by others. Some of his appearances coincided with trips to promote his book "Al on America," and the publisher, Kensington Books, paid the bills, Watkins said. Kensington executives did not return a call for comment.

Other appearances were not campaign events, but sermons or speeches for which Sharpton pocketed a speaking fee, Watkins said. Sharpton considered still other trips part of his work as an advocate, and so his National Action Network paid the way, Watkins said.

"I have been assured that there was a clear line drawn between any overt (campaigning) and any NAN trips, any book events, any speaking at churches," Watkins said Friday. A breakdown of which trip fell into which category was not immediately available, he said.

Because of free-speech issues, federal law is vague in judging whether a candidate's trips to give paid sermons must be reported as campaign expenses - even if the sermons, as many of Sharpton's are, are filled with political rhetoric, Washington lawyer Kenneth Gross said.

A paid speech outside a church could more easily be considered a campaign event if the candidate talked politics.

But there are no ambiguities governing "mixed purpose" trips in which a candidate travels to a state for a campaign event at one stop and a supposedly nonpolitical event at another. Sharpton, it appears, made at least several such trips. In such cases, the candidate must treat the cost of travel as a campaign expense. Sharpton apparently did not treat such trips that way.

In his March trip to California, for example, he gave a paid speech to the National Black Political Science Conference, then was driven to the state Democratic convention in Sacramento to speak again. Watkins said the campaign was required to pay only for the cost of gas in driving to Sacramento once Sharpton was in California.

But campaign finance experts said the law is clear that the entire cost of traveling to California and back must be charged to the campaign.

"You can't use the noncampaign events as cover for subsidizing campaign travel," said Larry Noble, Federal Election Commission general counsel from 1987 to 2000. The commission can assess civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation of the campaign finance law, Noble said. For "knowing and willful" violations, criminal prosecution is possible.

A commission spokesman declined to answer questions about Sharpton's filings.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services