NEW YORK CITY — A lot has changed since the Rev. Al Sharpton worked for the FBI. Sharpton, for one, has gotten a lot thinner. And his story about why he wore a wire has gotten taller.
In recent days, Sharpton has portrayed his dealings with federal agents who were investigating the mob as what any civic-minded citizen would do if they were threatened by La Cosa Nostra.
Sharpton, a host on MSNBC, admitted he cooperated with the feds, but only because he was threatened by the mob, prompting him to go undercover to rid them from his community.
"I'm a cat," Sharpton told his followers at the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network earlier this week. "I chase rats.
"I did what was right."
That version of events has even been praised by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called Sharpton "the real deal" at a recent appearance, as well as President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to make an appearance at a civil rights conference hosted by Sharpton's National Action Network on Friday.
But the federal lawmen who helped turn Sharpton into an informant remember things differently.
Sharpton's FBI handler from the 1980s — who managed him as an informant after the FBI's organized crime squad videotaped the reverend agreeing to take $3,500 from an undercover agent posing as a Colombian drug dealer — recalled Sharpton's reaction of shock and remorse when he was confronted with the incriminating tape.
"He realized right away he screwed up," the source said. "He started saying how he should not have done what he did and said what he said."
Sharpton was targeted because he had music industry ties to Morris Levy, the owner of the then-popular Roulette Records, which was in the pocket of Genovese Crime Family boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante. Levy is best known today as the model for the character “Hesh” in the hit HBO series “The Sopranos.”
At the time, Sharpton had also been eyed by New York State's Organized Crime Task Force, which alleged he was shaking down promoters at Madison Square Garden for concert tickets that he gave to Genovese captain Joseph Pagano to scalp and split the proceeds.
Joseph Coffey, then a top OCTF supervisor who went on to twice arrest John Gotti and put the handcuffs on Paul “Big Paul” Castellano, said Sharpton was snagged on OCTF wiretaps using phones on a golf course in Westchester County that was controlled by the mob and specifically Pagano.
“He was an informant . . . caught in a bear trap," Coffey said.
Sharpton was never charged with a crime in connection with the mob investigations.
The FBI explained to Sharpton that his best hope to get out from under the problem was to cooperate.
"Flipping someone is not only announcing to them that they have a problem," the source explained. "But you have to hold yourself out as their lifeline...that they did something bad and now we are there to help."
He said snaring Sharpton then was no different than catching a routine drug dealer. "It was not like we were flipping the President of the United States," he said.
So the FBI handlers met with Sharpton convincing him they were his best option.
“I remember my first meeting with Sharpton,” a former FBI official, who asked for anonymity, told "On The Inside."
“It was in a diner off Canal Street near Chinatown. He was wearing that tracksuit and medallion and he cursed like a sailor, like me. He was funny. It was like hanging out with Richard Pryor. He had me in stitches. He was a fantastic observer of situations. Sometimes I could not breathe.
"We would have coffee and burgers," the former top fed said. “I spent hours and hours and hours with him."
It was months before they "got into the nitty gritty, and he got deadly serious about what we needed him to do," the source continued.
Like most informants, Sharpton was initially nervous before he was sent out to make secret recordings. But "each time, he got more confident," the source said.
Sharpton carried around a bugged briefcase to record wise guys he was running with. Sometime Sharpton wore a wire under his sweatsuit, the former top official said.
At the time, the FBI was really hoping Sharpton could lead them to heavyweight fight promoter Don King.
While that avenue fell short, Sharpton's recordings were stepping stones to getting wiretaps on other Genovese mobsters and associates. "Al knew a lot of minor players we were interested in and it was a way for us to get up the food chain,” the former fed continued.
In fact, Sharpton's tapes ultimately snared Meade Esposito, then the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss. The tapes also led the feds to Gigante’s doorstep, the source recalled.
The former law enforcement official said he lauded Sharpton's transformation over the last three decades.
“I applaud that he has changed,” the official concluded. “This was a series of incidents 30 years ago and most of the thugs he recorded are dead or elderly men.”
“But he was in bed with them at that time, enough to have unguarded conversations with them, and he has never ‘fessed up to his sins and everyone knows it. If he came out and said, ‘Yes, I was an informant for the FBI but today I am a changed man,’ I could accept that.
“This is very forgiving country, myself included,” he added. "No one expects anyone to rot permanently in hell. But at some point, you have to stop saying ... everyone else was wrong.”