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Published: Friday, 4/16/2004

Sharpton's funding burdens

THE Rev. Al Sharpton could have a headache a whole lot bigger than badly losing every presidential primary he has entered. He may have to pay back federal matching campaign funds, and that's in addition to the more than half a million dollars his campaign already owes.

The minister from New York City was one of the initial 10 Democratic presidential contenders vying for the chance to win the party's nomination and then to run against George W. Bush for the White House in the fall. But the presidential race could be a bitter memory for Mr. Sharpton if the Federal Elections Commission decides to suspend matching funds for his campaign.

That could happen if the FEC rules that he violated the limit on the amount a candidate can spend on his own campaign and still qualify for the matching dollars.

If the FEC decides Mr. Sharpton in fact spent more than double the $50,000 limit imposed by the agency on personal spending, he could be required to repay funds already received.

The Sharpton campaign is already trying to repay other debt, so this is not welcome news. By the beginning of March, it was $634,000 in the red.

The FEC did not declare that Mr. Sharpton was eligible to receive public financing until March 11. So there could be a gray area here. He may have exceeded the limit on the assumption that he would not qualify for federal matching funds anyway. If so, he assumed incorrectly.

Though Mr. Sharpton won only a handful of delegates in the primaries, his voice is a necessary one on the issues. He forced the other candidates to address matters that might not have received the attention they deserved.

But the law is the law, and the delegate-rich and the delegate-poor have to play by the same rules.

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