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Candidate's relationship with talk radio station raises questions about campaign finance

Nino Mangione’s family owns talk radio station WCBM 680. He is the station’s web manager. Until April, he even hosted a weekly, hourlong talk show.

But Mangione, a Parkville Republican, is also running to be District 42B’s state delegate — a situation one of his opponents said is problematic.

“On his radio show, Nino Mangione would shame the news media for what he perceived as biased coverage,” said Republican Justin Kinsey, one of Mangione’s opponents in the upcoming June 26 primary. “Yet, he’s using his family-owned media platform to promote his own candidacy, and doesn’t seem to understand the conflict of interest involved.”

Mangione, 31, who has spent his entire work life working at the family station, countered that there is no conflict. When the WCBM website, which he manages, posts stories about his campaign, Mangione said it is just reporting the news, not advertising his campaign.

Andy Levy, a partner with law firm Brown Goldstein Levy who has decades of experience in Maryland election law, however, said the relationship could potentially be considered an in-kind campaign contribution, subject to reporting requirements and limits.

“As a general matter, media exposure is a thing of value and ordinarily should probably be reported – particularly where there is a relationship between the candidate and the media entity,” Levy said.

Mangione filed his candidacy for one of District 42B’s two seats in the state House of Delegates last July. The district stretches from Towson and Parkville in the south, through Timonium and Cockeysville and north to the Maryland-Pennsylvania line.

Mangione has not reported any in-kind donations from WCBM on his campaign finance reports.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the campaign finance division at the State Board of Elections, said his office has received a complaint about the Mangione campaign, but did not share the substance of the complaint.

“The matter alleges actions outside the enforcement authority of this office and was forwarded to the Office of the State Prosecutor,” DeMarinis said. Issues involving the possible enforcement of impermissible contributions or contributions over the limits are forwarded to the state prosecutor, DeMarinis said.

A staff member in the State Prosecutor’s Office said they do not confirm or deny the status of investigations, and that they are only public if an individual is charged.

Campaign finance violations such as failure to report contributions are subject to fines of between $50 and $500 under Maryland law. If a violation is made willfully and knowingly, it can result in a fine of no more than $25,000 and/or up to one year in prison.

Social media posts

The station’s Facebook page has posted content from Nino Mangione’s campaign’s Facebook page at least nine times since the beginning of the year. By contrast, searches on WCBM’s Facebook page for the names of the six other candidates in District 42B yielded no results.

In October, WCBM reposted a video in which Mangione advertised his campaign kickoff event and encouraged viewers to purchase tickets. “Good luck to WCBM 680’s Nino Mangione on his major announcement tomorrow night!” the station’s caption said.

After Mangione announced his candidacy, the station’s page congratulated him.

According to state law, in-kind contributions are goods or services that are given to a candidate for free. Candidates are required to report them and to calculate their value based on how much the goods or services would cost if they had to pay for them. In-kind contributions are subject to the same contribution limits as cash donations — up to $6,000 per person or organization per election cycle.

Independent expenditures are not subject to contribution limits, according to state guidelines. If “cooperation or coordination” exists between the candidate and the organization doing the spending, however, it is considered a campaign donation subject to the limits.

One way the state elections board determines if something is an in-kind contribution is by looking for evidence of “publishing or distributing campaign material prepared by the candidate.”

A candidate’s social media posts, DeMarinis said, are considered campaign material.

On May 30, WCBM reposted the Mangione campaign’s Facebook post about a scholarship that the candidate said was being offered at Towson University, reserved solely for undocumented students.

“I am stunned, shocked, and angry to learn Towson University is awarding scholarships to students in our country illegally,” Mangione wrote on May 29. “Worse, American students cannot even apply.”

That scholarship has never existed, according to Towson University spokesman Sean Welsh. He said the Student Government Association, a legislative body which operates independently from the administration, had floated the idea and discussed it in internal emails, but “it didn’t materialize.”

WCBM also created a web page about the scholarship on its website, originally headlined “Towson University to Offer Scholarship Just for ILLEGAL Aliens! American Students ‘Not Eligible.’” Mangione’s Facebook post was embedded. There was no other reporting on the page.

In an interview May 31, asked if Mangione had shared the post on WCBM’s pages, he said, “I brought it to their attention.”

“I do most of the work, and they gave me permission to post it,” Mangione said. “I said, we’re sharing it on social media.”

Mangione’s weekly Friday night talk show, “The Six at 6 with Nino Mangione,” started in July 2017 and went off the air in April. Mangione said in his last show that it was ending “due to the political on-air rules.”

It is not against the law to host a broadcast show as a candidate, but it does trigger the Federal Communications Commission’s “equal time rule,” in which stations must give opponents a comparable radio slot for a comparable price, if the opponent requests it within seven days.

Mangione’s show ended around the same time as that of another Republican political candidate, Pat McDonough, who is running for Baltimore County Executive. McDonough said on Facebook that his show, also on WCBM, ended because of a complaint from his primary opponent, Al Redmer.

Mangione said he does not see WCBM’s posts, or his radio show, as in-kind contributions.

“I don’t think that counts as an in-kind contribution, having a news talk radio station post the news,” he said.

“If it’s sharing that I’m having a political fundraiser, then maybe you could talk about that,” he later added.

In February, WCBM posted a page entitled “Nino Mangione Upcoming Event for Delegate” with a campaign Facebook post embedded, encouraging people to attend a March 15 fundraiser and linking to a page to purchase tickets.

“I’ve thought about it this entire time, how frustrating it is that he had this outlet,” said Kinsey, Mangione’s opponent. But Kinsey said he never filed a complaint with the state Board of Elections because he felt it was useless to challenge a “big money establishment team using everything to their advantage.”

There are two other Republican candidates in the race. Tim Robinson, who is running for state Senate on a slate with Mangione, and Ray Boccelli, who is also running for delegate.

“It is unfair,” Boccelli said of Mangione’s relationship with WCBM. “The silver spoon few get the share of the food. There’s not much I can do about it.”

Mangione said his opponents’ comments seemed to him “like somebody’s trying to make something out of nothing toward the end of the election campaign.”

But Levy, the election lawyer, said that while he did not know the specifics of the case, an employee of a media outlet posting about his own campaign is “the kind of relationship that can cross over the line, if people are not careful.”

“It’s certainly not a frivolous concern,” Levy said.

asolomon@baltsun.com

twitter.com/libsolomon

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