APNewsBreak: GOP candidate failed to report infomercial
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island Republican gubernatorial candidate Allan Fung promoted his candidacy on an hourlong radio infomercial that’s hosted by a lobbyist for the trucking industry, and campaign records reviewed by The Associated Press show he failed to report the donation of radio air time.
The failure is likely to have violated campaign finance law, according to the good government group Common Cause.
Fung appeared Aug. 4 on the show “Changing Gears,” which is hosted by Chris Maxwell, a registered lobbyist who is CEO of the industry group the Rhode Island Trucking Association, and Michael Collins, of M&D Transportation, a trucking company. The show airs Saturdays on WPRO-AM, one of Rhode Island’s main news radio stations, but the show opens with a disclaimer that makes clear it is paid programming and not news.
When asked about the appearance, Fung’s campaign did not address why he did not report the contribution, or say whether he knew the value of the air time.
“Mayor Fung is just one of many elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, who have appeared on this show to discuss issues important to their listeners,” spokesman Andrew Augustus said in an email.
The appearance comes as Fung, a supporter of President Donald Trump in a state where Trump is deeply unpopular, has been turning down requests from several statewide media outlets for interviews and debates ahead of his Sept. 12 primary against state Rep. Patricia Morgan. Fung, the Cranston mayor, is widely viewed as the front-runner. The winner is likely to face Democratic incumbent Gov. Gina Raimondo.
The Rhode Island Trucking Association, along with Maxwell and Collins, has been harshly critical of Raimondo’s push to institute tolls on large trucks as a way to pay for road repairs.
During the appearance, Fung is repeatedly given the chance to promote his candidacy and criticize Raimondo. The hosts and Fung begin the show by noting that the primary is coming up. At one point, Fung is asked how he becomes “the next Charlie Baker,” referring to Massachusetts’ Republican governor.
“I need everyone to elect me on Nov. 6, and then we’ll get there,” Fung replies.
Fung calls Raimondo “incompetent” and “arrogant,” touts his record in Cranston and desire to cut taxes if elected, and defends himself against public criticism that a prominent developer had given him free rent on his 2016 campaign headquarters. Fung also says he wants to listen to the trucking industry’s needs.
John Marion, of Common Cause, said the appearance had all the hallmarks of an infomercial and should have been reported under the state’s campaign finance laws if the fair market value of the airtime was more than $100. Two media buyers contacted by the AP said it was likely to exceed that.
“It was clearly designed to promote his candidacy in the weeks leading up to the primary,” Marion said.
Morgan has called into the show a few times, but her appearances have taken significantly less time. Her most recent call, on the July 28 episode, for example, lasted about five minutes. Other appearances were in March and June. Raimondo’s campaign says they have never received an invitation to appear.
Marion said the law has a media exception, where TV and radio appearances don’t have to be reported if they’re for a journalistic purpose, but this appearance doesn’t meet those requirements.
It is not clear how much the air time cost or who paid for it. A station sales manager declined to answer when asked and referred the AP to the website for the show. The website lists sponsors including the trucking association, a law firm and several businesses, as well as the Gaspee Business Network, which was formed by the conservative advocacy group the Gaspee Project to oppose truck tolls.
State campaign finance laws place limits on who can donate to candidates, and how much they can give annually.
Corporations, such as the trucking association, are not allowed to give directly. Individuals and political action committees may give, but they are limited to $1,000 annually per candidate. Marion said if the fair market value of the radio time was worth more than $1,000, it would exceed that limit.
Maxwell appears to be well aware of the value of radio air time to gubernatorial candidates. The week before Fung’s appearance, he issued a press release and sent a letter to the Board of Elections complaining that the regularly scheduled appearance of the state’s director of transportation on a WPRO-AM call-in news show may violate campaign finance laws because it is “overt political advocacy” benefiting Raimondo. He called the news segment an “infomercial” and said that using typical peak-time broadcast advertising rates, “it would likely amount to thousands of in-kind advertising dollars.”
The board didn’t investigate because he did not submit it as a verified complaint with supporting evidence, according to a letter they sent him, which he provided to the AP.
“We are currently deciding whether we will pursue the matter,” Maxwell told the AP Tuesday in an email when asked about the complaint.
After initially saying he would be available to speak with the AP on Wednesday morning about the complaint, Maxwell first said he was busy, and then did not respond to phone and email messages asking about Fung’s appearance.
Campaign finance records show the trucking group’s political action committee reported giving $100 to Fung in July, while Collins gave Fung $750 this year. Maxwell gave Morgan $500 in June. The trucking PAC has given Morgan money in the past, but not this year.