ALBANY — A Florida woman has sued New York’s ethics commission over its demand that she register as a lobbyist because she paid for billboards to criticize the state’s molestation laws.
Kat Sullivan said in a lawsuit filed in state court Wednesday that the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics is conducting an “abusive” investigation of her. She’s asking the court to end the ethics commission’s investigation and declare a New York lobbying disclosure law unconstitutional.
“The commission has violated Ms. Sullivan’s rights to free speech and to petition the government by badgering her to register as a lobbyist and report speech that is not lobbying,” according to the lawsuit.
The commission has said the billboards amounted to lobbying and threatened Sullivan with at least $25,000 in fines if she refused to pay a lobbyist registration fee of $200.
Sullivan says she was assaulted by a teacher at a private school two decades ago. She was among hundreds of people who successfully pressured lawmakers this year to pass a law making it easier for abuse victims to seek justice.
In 2018, Sullivan launched advertisements on billboards and an airplane banner that drew attention to sexual abuse, the sexual abuse bill and her website. One billboard design included the names and photograph of several senators, while her website included a sample script and contact information for readers to reach out to senators.
Sullivan said the state has repeatedly contacted her through letters, emails and telephone calls without clearly explaining how they believed she was violating recently approved regulations on what counts as “grassroots lobbying.”
A spokesman said the ethics body has no comment on such pending litigation.
The body’s pursuit of the case has led Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to question the ethics body’s focus on Sullivan.
“The Cuomo administration led and won the fight to pass the child victims act and extend the statute of limitation for second and third degree rape and the only facts we have in this case are based on media reports, but if they are correct, there are greater matters that JCOPE should be focused on,” said Press Secretary Caitlin Girouard.
Sullivan called on the governor to act and said she hasn’t received a response from the certified letters she sent to Cuomo’s office about the issue.
“Are they going to do more than speculate that their chairperson is breaking the law?” she said. “Or are they going to read the 19-page lawsuit that we filed?”
The governor’s office didn’t provide a response to Sullivan’s comments.
Meanwhile, ethics officials have tried to defend such investigations without directly commenting on Sullivan’s case.
The commission’s regulations define “grassroots lobbying” as any communication that takes a position on government action and includes a “call to action,” Commissioner Michael Rozen told the lawmakers this month.
He was responding to two Democratic lawmakers who argued the ethics body misapplied the law in Sullivan’s case and was chilling the free speech of citizens unable to hire a private lobbyist.
Anyone who spends more than $5,000 on any lobbying must register and report under state law, Rozen said in his Oct. 11 letter. He said the commission had recently added “grassroots lobbying” to its regulations.
Rozen called on lawmakers to change New York law that prevents him from publicly releasing information about “matters that have become public knowledge.”
The commissioner said the ethics body contacts “unwitting” individuals who may be lobbying without registration before pursuing an enforcement action.
“Only after the commission has exhausted all possibility of resolving a matter through this administrative program does the commission pursue an enforcement action,” he wrote.
“The Commission cannot pick and choose who is covered out of sympathy or hostility,” he added.