Anti-abuse advocate, NY ethics body spar over billboards
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Kat Sullivan wanted to get the attention of New York state officials when she took out ads on billboards criticizing the state’s molestation laws.
What she didn’t expect was the scrutiny of state ethics officials. They concluded the billboards amounted to lobbying and threatened Sullivan with fines if she refused to pay a state lobbyist registration fee of $200.
On Tuesday Sullivan’s attorney went before the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to demand that it drop the case against Sullivan since she didn’t spend enough on the billboards to even qualify as a lobbyist under state law. Sullivan said she is being harassed simply for speaking her mind.
“They can just try to stop me,” she said. “If it had been about the money, I would have paid $200 and registered. I don’t meet the definition or the requirements and I am willing to take this to the Supreme Court.”
Ethics officials have declined to discuss the case publicly but say they treat all people and organizations the same when it comes to lobbying. Commissioners met briefly in public on Tuesday before a closed-door executive session.
Sullivan, a nurse, says she was assaulted by a teacher at a private school in upstate New York two decades ago. She was one of hundreds of people who successfully pressured lawmakers this year to pass the Child Victims Act, intended to make it easier for abuse victims to seek justice.
Under the new law, victims have until age 55 to file civil lawsuits and may seek criminal charges until they turn 28, as opposed to 23 under the old statute. The act also created a one-year window for past victims to file civil suits that had been barred by the old statute of limitations. That window opened Aug. 14.
To help the bill’s chances, Sullivan traveled to Albany and spoke at press conferences. She also set up a website and hired a pilot to fly a plane around Albany carrying a banner supporting the legislation.
The idea for the billboards came from the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in which a woman uses billboards to seek justice for her daughter’s murder. She spent about $14,000 on the billboards — though only one of them was in New York state. The two others were in Massachusetts and Connecticut, places where the teacher Sullivan accused later moved.
One of the billboards featured a black-and-white photo of a woman with text that read: “My rapist is protected by New York State Law. I AM NOT.”
Sullivan said she paid for the billboards using money from a legal settlement with her former school, Emma Willard School in Troy.
The billboards were noticed, and Sullivan received a warning from ethics officials that she could face tens of thousands of dollars in fines for violating a law requiring individuals to register as lobbyists if they spend more than $5,000 on efforts to influence the Legislature.
Her attorney, David Grandeau, said Sullivan’s expenses on the billboard in New York state fall short of the lobbying threshold. He noted New York’s long tradition of political corruption — more than 30 lawmakers have left office facing criminal or ethical allegations since 2000 — and questioned why the commission chose to target Sullivan.
“You’re going to take the time and trouble to bring the weight of the state down on a rape victim?” said Grandeau, who himself was once the state’s top lobbying enforcement official. “This woman is not a lobbyist, under any definition you can find. So leave her alone.”