Radio host Bill Spadea attacks ‘extralegal’ push to review campaign benefit of his show

By: - June 25, 2024 1:31 pm

Radio host and gubernatorial hopeful Bill Spadea calls the Election Law Enforcement Commission's planned review of whether his show provides a campaign benefit “extraordinary and extralegal.” (Photo by Hal Brown)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Spadea is arguing in a new campaign filing that his weekday radio show on New Jersey 101.5 does not amount to an impermissible in-kind contribution to his campaign because it does not include direct appeals for his election.

His two primary opponents are taking the opposite position, claiming in filings made public Tuesday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission that the platform afforded to Spadea by the radio station amounts to aid well above the state’s campaign contribution limits.

The commission is due to hear arguments on the matter on Friday.

An adverse ruling would immediately spell trouble for Spadea, a conservative firebrand who has placed himself firmly in the Trump wing of the Republican Party. Apart from choosing whether to give up his radio show or his campaign, a ruling against him would likely put him in immediate violation of state campaign finance laws.

Spadea’s filing says his show does not constitute an in-kind contribution — that’s a non-monetary donation to a political campaign, usually in the form of goods or services — because state regulations define political communications as those urging the election or defeat of a given candidate. The radio host claims not to have made any such appeals.

“Thus, the mere presence of a candidate does not transform a communication into a ‘political communication contribution.’ It must include an explicit appeal for the election or defeat of a candidate,” Spadea’s attorneys wrote in their brief, which calls the commission’s planned review “extraordinary and extralegal.”

The brief adds that the proper procedure here would be for the commission to investigate only if Spadea engaged in political advocacy on his show, not “prospectively restricting speech that might potentially become a campaign contribution.”

Lawyers for Sen. Jon Bramnick, who is seeking the GOP nod for governor next year, say New Jersey 101.5 is giving opponent Bill Spadea an in-kind campaign contribution by allowing him to remain on the air during the campaign. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Spadea’s attorneys appeared to admit in a footnote that the show could cause campaign finance issues come January.

The state regulations say communications absent a direct appeal for election are political communications if their audience is substantially made up of eligible voters, if they contain political objectives or achievements, and if they were made with at least some cooperation or consent from the candidate, subject to a time bar. For most candidates, that rule kicks in 90 days before an election. For gubernatorial candidates, it becomes effective on Jan. 1 of the year of the gubernatorial election — in this case, Jan. 1, 2025.

Townsquare Media, which owns New Jersey 101.5, echoed its host’s arguments in its own brief. It says a finding that his show is an in-kind contribution would improperly restrict speech.

“Classifying Spadea’s airtime as an in-kind contribution … would open the door to excessive regulation of media activities involving any candidate, chilling free speech and hindering political participation,” Townsquare’s attorneys wrote.

The station said it has instituted internal rules to bar mentions of Spadea’s candidacy or attacks on his opponents, adding he will no longer be allowed to host New Jersey 101.5 radio programs after he becomes a legally qualified candidate as defined by the Federal Communications Commission.

Spadea will meet that bar if and when he files nominating petitions and secures a spot on the ballot. The deadline to file nominating petitions is typically in late March or early April of the election year, or a little more than 60 days before the primary.

He could become a legally qualified candidate earlier if he declares a write-in campaign, though he is not expected to do so.

Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), one of Spadea’s opponents for the Republican nomination, argues the show is an in-kind contribution because it is a contribution of a good or service — namely airtime — to a candidate.

“His program offers substantial promotional advantages to his campaign, including unrestricted market access and significant advertising influence typically purchased by other candidates,” attorney William Burns wrote for Bramnick’s campaign.

Bramnick’s attorneys cited a 1997 advisory opinion from the Election Law Enforcement Commission that found the publication of political newsletters could be an in-kind contribution. That opinion centered on a newsletter that was to be sent within the 90-day lockout period for non-gubernatorial candidates.

Lawyers for GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli argue New Jersey 101.5 cannot credibly argue that Spadea gives equal time to all candidates on his show. (Photo by Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Attorneys for Jack Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman mounting a third bid for governor next year, argue Spadea’s airtime is a contribution on different grounds. New Jersey’s definition of expenditure includes an exemption for some news coverage, but Ciattarelli’s campaign argues Spadea’s show does not qualify for this exception because it does not provide “reasonably equal coverage to all opposing candidates” as the exception requires.

“Even Spadea and Townsquare Media cannot credibly contend that they afford ‘reasonable equal coverage to all opposing candidates,’” attorney Mark Sheridan wrote for the Ciattarelli campaign. “Instead, they provide coverage to a single candidate with a single point of view.”

But that isn’t the only test in the news media exception. It also asks whether a candidate or political committee owns or controls the news organization’s facility. Spadea does not own or control Townsquare Media, his attorneys said in his filing.

Townsquare Media bills $500 per minute of airtime for ads on Spadea’s morning show, according to a rate card for political advertisements provided by the firm to Ciattarelli’s campaign.

Spadea’s show runs for 20 hours each week and has aired 28 hours since Spadea announced his candidacy. That could be up to $420,000 in airtime, though not all the time would be considered an expenditure even in the case of an adverse ruling. New Jersey caps campaign contributions to $5,800 per election.

“This situation is entirely of Spadea’s making. He could have sought an advisory opinion from this Commission as to whether his airtime constituted a ‘contribution’ under the Act,” Sheridan wrote. “Spadea and his employer, Townsquare Media, both failed to avail themselves of that opportunity.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov is an award-winning reporter who covers state government and politics for the New Jersey Monitor, with a focus on fiscal issues and voting. He has reported from the capitol since 2018 and joined the Monitor at its launch in 2021. The Rutgers University graduate previously covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. Before then he covered local government in New Brunswick as a freelancer for the Home News Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected].

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