US Fact check: Viral meme compares Al Sharpton's tax troubles with Willie Nelson's
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The claim: The Rev. Al Sharpton owes over $19 million in outstanding taxes; IRS seized Willie Nelson's assets over $16 million in tax debt
Civil rights activist and television host the Rev. Al Sharpton has taken heat over the years for tax delinquency, including ain March 2019 that compared his tax case to those of several white celebrities and about Sharpton and Stacey Abrams.
Recently, users have shared awritten about Sharpton on April 9, 2016, comparing his case to one involving country singer Willie Nelson.
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"In 1990, The IRS seized Willie Nelson's bank accts and real estate holdings for a 16 million dollar tax debt. Currently, Al Sharpton owes in excess of 19 million dollars in taxes and he visits the White House regularly as a guest!!! Explain White Privelege (sic) Again?"
The post gave no source for its claim that Sharpton owed $19 million in taxes.
The post has been shared more than 24,000 times. USA TODAY reached out to the poster for comment.
Sharpton owes far less than the claim states
In 2014,and reported that Sharpton had accumulated over $4.5 million in unpaid state and federal taxes on his personal assets and for-profit businesses, including Raw Talent, Revals Communications Inc., and the National Action Network, a civil rights organization he founded.
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Though $4.5 million is significant, no credible source has stated that Sharpton owed taxes in excess of that number. A search suggests that the meme was first posted on social media around Nov. 12, 2015, when two posts on Reddit discussed the claim that Sharpton owed $19 million in the groupsand Several sites reposted it, including , , and the
Sharpton has also paid down a significant amount of his debt since 2014, as. He paid off his personal taxes but still owed $700,000 in 2019 for his companies.
IRS seized Willie Nelson's assets
As the post states, in 1990, the IRS seized Nelson's possessions – "almost everything but his talent and beat-up Martin guitar," wrote– for several million dollars in unpaid back taxes, interest and penalties.
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According to, the IRS found Nelson had failed to pay income tax on investments in a tax shelter later deemed illegal by the IRS. His lawyers negotiated the initial $16.7 million bill down to $6 million and the case was settled without criminal charges. Because Nelson was unable to pay this sum, however, the IRS raided Nelson's home in 1990 and auctioned his Texas ranch to the highest bidder – a fan who promptly returned the property to Nelson.
Nelson's is one of the most infamous U.S. cases of unpaid taxes, thanks in part to his album "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?"under the agreement that the IRS would take revenue from its sales.
Meme makes questionable comparison
The Facebook post contrasts Willie Nelson's unexpected IRS raids with Sharpton's status as a regular White House guest in 2016, suggesting this discrepancy is evidence against the existence of white privilege.
Even ignoring the fact Nelson owed around four times as much as Sharpton did, there are clear differences that make this comparison a stretch at best.
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Owing back taxes is very common, according to Steven A. Bank, a business law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, who specializes in business taxation, tax policy, and tax history.
"I have to say if you were to if you were to restrict from the White House all the people who might be paying off taxes ...probably a lot of people in Congress wouldn't be able to go either," said Bank. "It's not that unusual that someone would be paying off taxes on a payment plan of some kind."
states that Nelson evaded taxes through the use of an tax shelter the IRS later deemed illegal, but he was never charged with a crime.
Sharpton was not charged for willful tax evasion on the back taxes he owed in 2014. However, he was charged with two tax crimes in the 90s. He was, and he was for failing to file a state return in a later case and pleaded guilty.
Nelson's lack of cooperation with the IRS and his lack of cash on hand is likely what caused the IRS to take the drastic measures it did. Though Nelson refused to file for bankruptcy until after the raids, he was having serious problems with cash flow and paying his many obligations at the time,reported. According to Bank, the IRS may have gone forward with raids because if it had waited, the impending bankruptcy proceedings would have complicated its attempt to recover debt and assets.
US police not above the law: Sharpton at Daunte Wright funeral
Hundreds of mourners, including relatives of George Floyd and top Minnesota politicians, attended the funeral on Thursday of Daunte Wright, a young Black man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. "The time has come for police to understand they're not above the law," veteran civil rights leader Al Sharpton said in his eulogy. Wright, 20, was shot during a traffic stop in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center on April 11 by a police officer who apparently confused her handgun for her Taser. © Brandon Bell The Rev.
The most significant contrast between Sharpton's case and Nelson's case seems to be that Sharpton had more cash on hand. As, the IRS placed several millions of dollars in federal on his assets. that he has paid off at least $2.1 million in satisfaction of those liens.
Our rating: Partly false
We rate this post PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. The meme correctly states that the IRS seized the possessions and froze bank accounts of country music singer Willie Nelson for $16.7 million in unpaid taxes. However, the meme falsely claims that the Rev. Al Sharpton owed $19 million in taxes, when in fact he was reported to owe $4.5 million.
Our fact-check sources:
- CNN, Sep. 21, 2020,
- History.com, April 1, 2010,
- Internal Revenue Service, updated Dec. 11, 2020,
- Internal Revenue Service, April 8, 2018, Internal Revenue Service, April 8, 2018,
- Internal Revenue Service, updated March 5, 2021,
- Internal Revenue Service, updated 23 Sep. 2020,
- Internal Revenue Service , May 15, 2008, 22.214.171.124.2.2.2 26 USC §7201 –
- Internal Revenue Service , May 15, 2008, 126.96.36.199.2.2.2 26 USC §7202 –
- Internal Revenue Service , May 15, 2008, 188.8.131.52.2.2.2 26 USC §7203 –
- Internal Revenue Service , May 15, 2008, 184.108.40.206.2.2.3
- New York Post, Aug. 3, 2014,
- New York Times, Nov. 18, 2014,
- USA TODAY, Sep. 12, 2020,
- New York Times, Jan. 6, 1993,
- New York Times, Sep. 2, 1991,
- Texas Monthly, May 1991,
- Vox, April 16, 2019,
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The one thing that raised a lot of eyebrows during his confirmation hearing, was Bill Nelson’s enthusiastic support for commercial space at NASA. He expressed approval of the commercial crew program that is sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). He claimed in his opening statement to have always supported commercial space. He even supported the recent selection of SpaceX's Lunar Starship as the first crewed moon lander in 50 years. Contrary to his opening statement, Nelson was not always as enthusiastic about commercial space flight.