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Critics question Urban One’s financial links to pro-casino elected officials and Al Sharpton

Person speaking into microphone
Crixell Matthews
Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins promotes his proposed casino in Richmond's Southside. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Three days before Richmond concludes voting on a casino proposed by multi-media company Urban One, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton visited the city to campaign for the casino.

Sharpton, whose radio show Keeping It Real is syndicated by Reach Media, a subsidiary of Urban One, says his endorsement of the project is unrelated to his financial ties to Urban One.

But he isn’t the only one with financial ties to Urban One who is being criticized by casino opponents. Most of the members of the Richmond City Council, and Mayor Levar Stoney, have accepted donations from Urban One or individuals and organizations connected to the project.

The City Council and the Mayor

Stoney and five members of the Richmond City Council have collectively accepted a total of $41,308 from Urban One, their CEO Alfred Liggins, and investors in the casino project.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog organization, the election campaigns of council members Katherine Jordan, Mike Jones, Cynthia Newbille, Ann-Frances Lambert and Ellen Robertson accepted contributions directly or indirectly from people and organizations connected to the casino.

Four of those council members, and the mayor, have publicly endorsed the casino project.

Jones and Stoney accepted direct donations from Liggins. On Jan. 17, 2021 Jones accepted $5,000 from the CEO for his campaign for office in the House of Delegates. On May 27, Jones routed nearly $50,000 from his failed house campaign towards his City Council war chest. Stoney accepted $1,000 from Liggins on July 10, 2020. 

Lambert received a $308 donation to her campaign on June 17, 2021 from Urban One.

The mayor and four city council members also accepted donations from the Black Opportunity Council, founded in September 2020. One of its three directors is Greg Cummings, an investor in the casino project.

To Lambert and Jordan, that organization donated $2,500 to their campaigns on Oct. 20, 2020 and Oct. 9, 2020 respectively. For Newbille and Robertson, the council donated $5,000 each. They both reported receiving the donation on September 28, 2020.

Stoney has accepted more money than any other Richmond elected official from investors in the multi-media company’s casino. On Oct. 7, 2020, he reported receiving $20,000 in donations from the Black Opportunity Council to his reelection campaign.

Jones said his endorsement isn’t influenced by donations.

“For someone to say that we've been bought or whatever else, that’s challenging my integrity,” he said. “And I take great issue with that. I’m highly offended by that, that I can't do my job, regardless of what money someone has given me. Because what they're suggesting is that they could not receive money and vote no on a thing, that whoever they receive money from, they feel beholden to. And I don't.”

In addition to his financial ties to the company, Jones also says he has a personal relationship with Liggins’ mother, Cathy Hughes.

“I've known Cathy Hughes for 15 years,” he said “So they're no strangers to me.”

The mayor and other members of the City Council did not respond to requests for an interview before our deadline. A representative of Jordan’s office declined an interview, and said she “doesn’t have anything new to add since her council vote earlier this summer.” Jordan was the only council member to vote in June against holding the casino referendum. She’s also the only member of the City Council who hasn’t endorsed Urban One’s proposal.

Local activist and former City Council candidate Allan-Charles Chipman says these donations create an unacceptable conflict of interest between Urban One and Richmond’s elected officials.

“What you see are people who have received a lot of money from Mr. Liggins pretty much offering up their bought out talking points,” Chipman said. “What we need from our elected leaders are people who are willing to restrain and regulate the harm casinos can do and not just give free rein and legislate exploitation.”

Chipman is one of several local community members who are publicly objecting to the casino proposal. This month he joined 11 other Richmonders including Marijuana Justice founder Chelsea Higgs Wise and Richmond School Board Member Kenya Gibson in a video campaign advocating for voting no in the casino referendum.

Liggins acknowledges that he’s made donations to elected officials in Richmond, but said that he doesn’t think it has swayed their decision on endorsing the casino or not. He points out that in addition to Richmond’s current elected representatives, he also made donations to candidates who failed to win election like mayoral candidates Kim Gray and Alexis Rodgers.

“I contributed to Kim Gray, and I contributed to Alexis, all three African American folks that were running. And we support candidates that are supportive of the African American community, we do it up and down the country,” Liggins said.

Al Sharpton

Speaking at a Friday community event in Southside where the casino is proposed to be located, Sharpton said he supports the project because it will provide the under-resourced community with economic development.

“I think that they have a historic opportunity, and in a community that has been ignored, to really develop something that could be an economic engine, to help bring revenue to the city, jobs to the city, and be a national template for how we can build things,” Sharpton said.

In addition to his radio show, Sharpton has previously hosted a TV show on Liggins’ TV network, TV One.

In 2017, the most recent year for which financial information was reported, the Daily Beast reported that Sharpton earned $700,000 a year from Radio One and TV One, both part of Urban One’s multi-media corporation, for at least six years.

Sharpton acknowledged his professional ties to Urban One, but like Jones said they didn’t influence his decision to endorse the company’s casino project. He explained that he’s not an employee of Urban One. However, his show is syndicated by Reach Media, a subsidiary of Urban One, and has been for the last 15 years according to Urban One casino project communications director Mark Hubbard.

In addition to his show, Sharpton accepted $150,000 raised by Liggins when he was running for president in 2004. That’s according to The Monguldom Nation, which interviewed Liggins in January.

“​​When Al Sharpton ran for president, I raised like $150,000 for him, and I called my friends and they were like, ‘Why are we doing this? He can’t win’. I said, ‘That’s not the point’. The point is this is an advancement of our community and our representation,” Liggins said.

“None of that influences the decision,” Sharpton said. “I’ve worked with him for years in terms of radio, they broadcast some of our stuff. But I have no economic interest at all. In fact, when they build hotels, I’ll have to pay for my room.”

Liggins says his financial links to Sharpton are not connected to his endorsement.

“Reverend Sharpton is a nationally known speaker, voice for different issues. And why should it be surprising that he is speaking up about this particular issue?” Liggins said. “He's been clear about why he likes it and why he supports it.”

This isn’t the first time Sharpton has come out in support of Urban One’s projects. In 2017, he publicly pushed for a merger between Comcast and NBC that paid dividends to Radio One and TV One. He also advocated against a bill before Congress in 2009 that the media company opposed which would have required radio stations to increase royalties to artists.

Chipman says Sharpton’s endorsements in these projects matter, because people trust his opinion as a civil rights leader.

“His brand is kind of, Al Sharpton is going to speak up for Black people when there's an injustice being done,” Chipman said. “When [Liggins is] getting into these things that protect his pocket, but might be viewed as immoral, he always calls in Reverend Al Sharpton to try and give him cover.”

Chipman says he’s disappointed in the civil rights leader and Baptist minister.

“I was hoping that Reverend Sharpton would remember that before he was a politician and a TV host and employee of Urban One, that he is a reverend. And I think there's a certain morality that should come with that,” Chipman said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to note that Katherine Jordan has not endorsed the casino project. It has been corrected. We also corrected a reference to Mark Hubbard that described him as Urban One's communications director; he is the communications director for the casino project.