A radio host's recently launched campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has violated campaign finance laws, according to a complaint filed by the Kentucky Republican Party.
Kentucky Democrat and sports radio host Matt Jones, who launched his bid to unseat Kentucky's senior senator in September, is accused of violating Federal Election Commission regulations prohibiting campaigns from taking corporate donations. The party's complaint argues that Jones is accepting corporate contributions from iHeartMedia, which syndicates his radio show, and Simon & Schuster, publisher of his upcoming book Mitch, Please!
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State GOP chairman J. McCauley Brown accused Jones of ignoring campaign finance laws and attempting to "conceal these violations from both the FEC and the public."
"Matt Jones must be held accountable immediately for misusing multiple platforms paid for by his corporate sponsors to unlawfully promote his U.S. Senate candidacy," Brown said in a statement. "RPK's complaint is an important first step in stopping Jones's flagrant failure to comply with federal regulations and we urge the FEC to deliver a swift and strong penalty."
iHeartMedia pulled Jones from his show "for the time being" shortly after the complaint was filed. Neither Jones nor iHeartMedia responded to requests for comment.
Jones has dismissed the complaint as "absolute nonsense," claiming that he has "said repeatedly in public and in filings with the FEC that I am not yet a candidate." The Democrat's federal election filings, however, include a signed statement of his candidacy, and his principal campaign committee has spent enough money to meet the legal definition of an active candidate for office. While Jones can "test the waters" before officially declaring his candidacy under FEC law, the radio host still must comply with campaign finance prohibitions barring him from accepting corporate contributions.
Jones established the campaign committee nearly two months ago. While Jones named his committee "Matt Jones for Kentucky Exploratory Committee," the name has no bearing on its legal distinction.
"You can call a committee an exploratory committee, but legally it is a campaign committee," former FEC chairman Michael Toner told the Hill in January.
Jones has continued to refer to his campaign committee as an exploratory committee.
Since establishing the committee, Jones has spent nearly $10,000 in campaign cash. According to the Federal Election Campaign Act, an individual becomes a candidate for federal office after making "expenditures aggregating in excess of $5,000" and conducting "certain activities" that indicate the individual is no longer "testing the waters." Jones crossed the $5,000 threshold on September 1, when he disbursed $9,000 to a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. In addition, the Kentucky Republican Party's complaint argues, Jones made statements referring to himself as a candidate—one of the "activities" that disqualifies Jones from "testing the waters"—while discussing a statewide book tour.
Two weeks prior to the $9,000 disbursement, Jones announced his forthcoming book targeting McConnell. Simon & Schuster approached Jones with the project months before. The radio host revealed he would "spend the next four months visiting each of Kentucky's 120 counties" in search of stories showcasing how McConnell has "forgotten about his state." After the statewide tour, Jones planned to write the book "one county at a time," a fact Simon & Schuster has touted in promoting the book.
Jones has discussed the tour's impact on his campaign, admitting that it would boost his political profile.
"Since I'm doing a seven-week tour across the state to write my book, it felt like this was a good thing for my candidacy across the state," Jones said.
Simon & Schuster, which did not respond to request for comment, plugged the book on social media after news of the complaint broke.
— Simon & Schuster (@SimonBooks) November 7, 2019
The Kentucky Republican Party's complaint argues that, given the tour's political nature, any financing of it by Simon & Schuster would constitute an illegal corporate contribution. And if Jones's mention of his "candidacy across the state" disqualifies him from "testing the waters," the radio host would have to disclose all expenses related to the tour. Jones has only disbursed $700 in travel expenses to date.
In addition to the statewide tour, the complaint alleges that Jones has used his radio show, syndicated nationally through iHeartRadio, to criticize McConnell and promote his campaign.
"Every place I go in this state, one of the questions I ask is when is the last time Mitch McConnell has been here?" Jones said in October, weeks after exceeding the spending threshold. "And they say never, or they say it's been ten years."
A 1999 FEC decision found that "the media activity of a candidate host is held to a different standard than the media activity of a third party host or commentator discussing or interviewing a candidate." Thus, the Kentucky Republican Party argues, iHeartMedia is providing an in-kind donation to the Jones campaign through its continued syndication.
In response to the complaint, McConnell campaign manager Kevin Golden stated that while Team Mitch has "absolutely no concern about Matt's show," it "appears that his business relationships are concerned with his ability to comply with federal law."
Jones, who has been wary of using the term "liberal" in conservative Kentucky, calls himself a "progressive populist." Jones has criticized fellow Democratic Kentucky Senate candidate Amy McGrath, characterizing her as inauthentic. A failed House candidate in 2018, McGrath has run a campaign littered with gaffes since announcing her Senate bid in July.