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Cataldi: ‘Beach Tags are a Big Scam’

Radio host Angelo Cataldi said he was arrested

By Shay Roddy

AVALON – More than 20 years after he said he was arrested over the issue on Avalon’s beaches one gorgeous August afternoon, Angelo Cataldi is not giving up in his fight against beach tags.  

As Wildwood officials bat around the idea of introducing tags, potentially even as soon as 2023, they might encounter one unforeseen obstacle, who’s about to have a lot of newfound time on his hands.  

Cataldi recently announced he will be retiring at the end of 2022, leaving his long-running morning sports talk show atop the ratings, where it has long been. His show has aired for more than 30 years on WIP, in Philadelphia, but he said retirement might give him just enough time to settle some unfinished business near his second home at the Jersey Shore. 

“Maybe what I’ll do is, after I retire, I’ll make this my cause and I’ll go down and I’ll campaign to free all the beaches in South Jersey,” Cataldi, who spends summers in Sea Isle City, said in an interview. “Beach tags are a big scam and have been for a long time now. The only people not involved in it are the Wildwoods, and I hope they keep it that way.”  

Aside from the Wildwoods, Strathmere, in Upper Township, also does not require tags, though that town has little parking and far fewer businesses and amenities than the Wildwoods.  

Cataldi knows the intricacies of the issue well. While it was disputed in court whether Cataldi’s 1999 walk, sans handcuffs, to Avalon Beach Patrol headquarters constituted an official arrest (which would have required probable cause, something Cataldi disputed was ever established, in court), it would be tough to find a bigger audience than the one listening to Cataldi’s version of it.  

Cataldi took no prisoners in a scorched earth approach on the radio, simultaneously fighting through the state’s court systems, while offering his listeners a daily blow-by-blow, and organizing meetings and press conferences with state legislators to try to eliminate beach tags once and for all.  

“I embrace the idea that I am still the person most outspoken about beach tags down there,” Cataldi said.  

He even appeared at a press conference in 2000, his jacket studded in beach tags, with Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen, to try to enact legislative change against the fees. 

Cataldi’s interest in the issue began when his daughter, who did not have a beach tag, surprised him on the beach in Avalon. There were more unused tags that came with the house he was renting, but his parents, who had been staying with them, had gone out on errands and locked the house, taking the key, according to a court record offering a summary of Cataldi’s testimony in the case. 

A beach tagger, perhaps a bit overzealous, told Cataldi, who had switched chairs, so his daughter now had his chair with his tag, he would have to leave the beach until he could produce a tag. 

“They really became belligerent about it. They called the cops and they arrested me right on the beach,” Cataldi recalled. “They took me to a beach patrol office. A man there had serious problems dealing with the fact that he wasn’t that important. His name was Murray Wolf.”  

Wolf, now 83, the longtime Avalon beach patrol captain who retired at the end of 2020, was known over the years for his unapologetically authoritarian reign over the Avalon sands. He said in an interview Cataldi was nothing more than another lawbreaker, looking to use his celebrity to get him off. He laughed about the case and said he had no idea who Cataldi was when it happened.

While testimony reflected in court records shows witnesses disputed whether Cataldi unapologetically cursed and bragged to Wolf of his career in morning radio, Cataldi admitted this much: “I informed him that day that I was going to make him famous because I was going to make a major issue out of this.” 

Cataldi, a Pulitzer-nominated Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, who made a major name for himself after a transition to radio in 1988, joining former Eagle Tom Brookshier in a then-unproven format on WIP, made good on his word.  

Thus began a he-said-she-said, which, at times, seemed to turn news pages into tabloids, but, as Cataldi said, also turned courtrooms into “kangaroo courts.” 

George T. Kotch, the lawyer Cataldi recruited over the air to work the case pro bono, said in an interview he did not take the case because of the publicity it would give him, but because he felt Cataldi’s civil rights were violated. Kotch said between himself and another lawyer at his firm, they spent over 200 hours on the case.  

Cataldi put on a full-court, on-air press, describing his experience and chastising Avalon and Wolf at every opportunity. He vowed to fight the summons. 

“My recollection was it was actually kind of fun. I was a young attorney. I knew who Angelo was; I listened to him on the radio. All of a sudden, there he was in Avalon Municipal Court fighting over whether he had to wear a beach tag or not,” Michael Donohue, who prosecuted the case, said in an interview. “I would go out to meet some friends and everyone would be talking about how Angelo (Cataldi) was talking about me on the radio.” 

Donohue went on to become a Superior Court judge, serving for a short time on Cape May County’s criminal bench from 2016-2020, before leaving to go back to private practice, now serving as North Wildwood solicitor and in his role as the county’s GOP chairman. Cataldi doesn’t dispute it turned into a war of words, which was perhaps the best he could do since, he said, the legal war was predecided.  

“It was to the point where my bosses were saying, ‘Back off a little bit. This is getting ridiculous,’ but I was like, ‘No, I’m trying to illustrate here that the people need to fight city hall.”’  

Cataldi, who later bought his Sea Isle place after refusing to shop in Avalon, said, “I have never set foot on the beaches of Avalon again. I have castigated Wolf at every opportunity because he was far too aggressive for what somebody should be as part of a beach patrol.” 

In a September 1999 Avalon Municipal Court hearing, which was attended by major Philadelphia television networks and many local media outlets, as were all subsequent hearings, Cataldi said he put on a full trial, but was convicted of violating the town’s beach tag ordinance, after the judge rejected Kotch’s argument that beach tags are unconstitutional, saying that was an issue that should be taken up on appeal, court records show. 

“We lost in the municipal court because that’s totally rigged, especially in Avalon. I appealed to Superior Court and in Superior Court, we attempted to challenge the legality of these beach tags. I mean, we made a full-fledged attempt to get the Superior Court to look at what these communities were doing,” Cataldi said. 

He said in Superior Court he was amazed to find more of the same, with both cameras and corruption. 

“We had a hearing. This is how rigged this system is: At the end of the hearing, the judge grabs a yellow pad and reads a statement she had written long before the hearing,” Cataldi recalled of Judge Carmen H. Alverez. “What was the point of the hearing? She had already made up her mind that she wouldn’t deal with the overall issue of if these things were legal.” 

Cataldi said the prosecutor came up to him after the judge ruled and told him he hoped Cataldi “learned his lesson.”  

Kotch corroborated the story in a separate interview, but Donohue, then Avalon’s municipal prosecutor, said that never happened.  

Cataldi then appealed again, to the Superior Court’s appellate division, after reassurance from Kotch that he would continue to work for free.  

Again, Cataldi said the justices weren’t hearing it. He wondered how far he would have to go to find someone in power to agree to take the time to consider the argument that beach tags are plain unconstitutional, no matter what laws states or municipalities make. 

“It was fun. Maybe not for Angelo, but it was fun for me,” Donohue said in an interview. “They didn’t give them much time. They kind of got to their argument, and I remember the one judge saying, ‘Is this the argument about how this whole thing is unconstitutional?’ The attorney said, ‘Yeah.’ The judge said, ‘Well, we don’t want to hear about that.’”  

“I remember his lawyer being like, ‘Well, that’s kind of our whole case, judge,’ and him being like, ‘We don’t need to hear about it,” Donohue added. 

The panel of two appellate judges upheld Alvarez’s ruling after a third judge on the panel recused themselves. The hearing happened to be held in the Supreme Court chambers. It was Cataldi’s third and final defeat. 

In the end, Cataldi paid $82 – a $55 fine, $25 in costs, and $2 in miscellaneous fees, Avalon Municipal Court records show – but not before two years spent milking every ounce of the case’s self-generated entertainment material.  

“It was the best $82 lesson I ever got in the way things run, especially down at the Jersey Shore,” Cataldi said. “None of the trials that were held on the beach tags were in any way a justice. There was no justice intended and there was no justice delivered. All of it was rigged before we ever walked in.”  

It might have been Cataldi’s brash approach, one he has never made apologies for throughout his career, that turned the courts off. Maybe it was the jurists’ perception that this was about an entertainer using the justice system to produce content, not someone offering a serious legal defense, but parties on both sides agree the case was never given the time of day. 

Without Cataldi’s prominent position creating an ability to attract free legal work to go through the rigors of fighting a minuscule fine, would the issue ever otherwise have been raised? Has it ever been raised since? Will the New Jersey courts, presiding over the constitutionality of the state’s laws, ever look at this unique local fee?  

They may be things we will never know the answer to unless someone, like Cataldi, is angry enough and rich enough to try again. It is perhaps those unique circumstances that disqualified his case from serious consideration in the first place.  

Will anyone ever be brave enough, rich enough, and bored enough to force the state of New Jersey to prove they can enforce these beach tag fees, which generate millions for municipalities every summer? Cataldi said he hopes so. 

“If there was ever really an organized, not some loudmouth radio guy, but if there was a real organized effort to have the courts look at this, there would be no beach tags in New Jersey. There couldn’t be. We’re already paying the taxes for it,” said Cataldi. “Beach tags are an abomination to begin with. We all pay federal taxes, and these local communities are double-dipping. It’s what they’re doing, and they shouldn’t be because part of the money we’re giving, to federal taxes, is for the upkeep of beaches.” 

To contact Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com.  

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