Valley media mogul donates airtime to GOP hopefuls
By Jim Sanders -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 am PDT Tuesday, October 26, 2004
Attempting to boost Republican Party prospects, the owner of a chain of Central Valley television and radio stations has donated $325,000 in airtime for GOP candidates in many of the state's hottest legislative elections.
The contribution by Harry J. Pappas comes in the final days of campaigning, and those involved in the campaigns couldn't recall another instance in which a California media mogul donated time on public airwaves for advertisements to benefit one party over another.
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Critics say the contribution is a clear attempt to sway close elections, is likely to raise new questions of media bias, and violates federal law requiring broadcasting companies to provide equal time to political candidates.
"They're the public's airwaves," said attorney Karen Getman, who represents the Assembly Democratic Caucus and formerly served as chairwoman of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. "You're not free to give them to one side in a partisan debate."
Democrats released a letter Monday demanding equal time on Pappas' stations.
But Mike Angelos, a spokesman for Harry Pappas and his media chain, Pappas Telecasting Cos., said the legality of the $325,000 in contributions was researched thoroughly.
Rather than give away free airtime, which is illegal under federal law, Pappas Telecasting Cos. essentially is footing the bill for broadcasting minutes it is setting aside for GOP candidates, Angelos said.
"We're not denying (Democrats) any opportunity," he said. "They have the opportunity to purchase an equivalent amount of airtime."
The $325,000 in airtime apparently targets many of the state's most contentious races, including those of Democratic Sen. Mike Machado and Republican Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto in the 5th Senate District, and Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, against Republican Dean Gardner in the Fresno area.
Pappas' contribution allows campaign advertising to air on seven television and two radio stations, most of which are based in the Central Valley but transmit to homes extending from Sacramento or San Jose to San Diego and Imperial counties.
The TV stations are KTNC, a Spanish-language station in the Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto and San Jose areas; KMPH Fox and KFRE, Fresno and Visalia; KBFX Fox and KABZ, Bakersfield; KAZA, Los Angeles; and KSWT, El Centro.
The radio stations are KTRB 860 AM in the Stockton-Modesto areas and KMPH 107.5 FM in Fresno and Visalia.
California law prohibits Pappas from giving more than $3,200 in cash or nonmonetary contributions to anyone on the Nov. 2 ballot. Under Proposition 34, however, supporters can donate up to $26,600 to political party committees.
Pappas gave $25,000 worth of airtime to Republican central committees in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Kings, Madera, Merced, Tulare, Santa Clara, Fresno, San Diego, Imperial, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
State law requires that the political party committees, rather than Pappas, determine which candidates receive the airtime.
Angelos likened Pappas' airtime contribution to other non-monetary donations permissible under state law, such as a caterer providing food for a candidate's fund-raiser.
"I suppose there's always going to be someone somewhere claiming it's unfair," Angelos said. "But I think Mr. Pappas has the right to express his political opinions as much as anyone else."
Added Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party: "If there are individuals who want to provide donations ... to elect more Republicans who will help Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with his reform agenda in Sacramento, I think they're certainly entitled."
But Democrats countered that the public nature of broadcasting airwaves makes the Pappas case different from a caterer.
"There should be an equal playing field in the media," said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for the Assembly Democratic Caucus. "A radio or TV station shouldn't be able to give free airtime to candidates just because the owner believes in their political philosophy."
Tracy Westen, an elections law attorney and chief executive officer of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the federal government's "equal time" provisions were crafted decades ago to cover such situations.
"I'm amazed if they think they can give it to one side and not the other," Westen said. "The problem with giving it to one side is it distorts the outcome of the election."
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said the case is likely to spark new questions from the public about media bias.
"This is going to make it much more difficult for media companies to urge more consolidation," Stern said.
Pappas, a Central Valley broadcaster for more than 40 years, has been active in other Republican campaigns, records show. Earlier this year, Pappas donated $3,200 to Podesto. Two years ago, he contributed $100,000 to then GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones.
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