Abuse Victim’s 3 Billboards Called for Stronger Laws. Then the State Showed Up.

When Kat Sullivan rented a billboard last year in upstate New York to call for stronger protections against child sex abusers, she believed she was engaging in the democratic process, using her own time and money to make her voice as an abuse survivor heard.

So she was shocked when state regulators afterward sent her a letter ordering her to register as a lobbyist.

New York State defines a lobbyist as, in part, someone who spends money to influence lawmakers. But Ms. Sullivan, a registered nurse, has argued that she was exercising her rights as a citizen.

She is now locked in a battle with the state’s ethics commission, which has warned that she could be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined more than $40,000 if she continues to refuse to register.

Ms. Sullivan’s case is unusual; few unpaid advocates spend more than $5,000 on an issue, the annual threshold for registering as a lobbyist in New York. Ms. Sullivan has said that she spent $14,000 on three billboards, plus about $2,000 on a website.

ImageKat Sullivan has said that she spent $14,000 on three billboards, plus about $2,000 on a website.
CreditValerie Chiang for The New York Times

But the case illuminates a larger conundrum facing lawmakers across the country: Who counts as a lobbyist in the age of social media and renewed grass-roots involvement, when it is easier than ever for people to make themselves heard?

New York revised its lobbying guidelines this year to explicitly include grass-roots campaigns as well as meetings with officials, and to define when social media counts as lobbying. In California, lawmakers are weighing a proposal to increase regulation of online advertisements about legislation. On the federal level, where only direct contact with lawmakers must be reported, activists have pushed for disclosure of grass-roots activity, too.

“Almost every jurisdiction I can think of is grappling at some level with how much is covered and at what threshold,” Beth Rotman, the director of the Money in Politics and Ethics program at Common Cause, a government reform group, said of social media and grass-roots mobilization.

She called the dilemma the “million-dollar question” for ethics officials.

“At a certain smaller threshold, these activities are not the same as paid lobbyists,” Ms. Rotman said. “The challenge becomes how we as a democracy track this when it becomes more than small dollar.”

The patchwork of lobbying laws across the country makes clear the challenge facing lawmakers. Federal law defines lobbyists by the percentage of time that they spend contacting lawmakers; New York defines them by money earned and spent. Other states have lower or higher thresholds, or exclude volunteers.

Ms. Sullivan’s activism stemmed from her experience as a student at the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y., where she says she was raped by a teacher in the 1990s, then forced out by administrators.

She did not speak publicly about her story until 2016. In response, the school commissioned a report that found numerous instances of abuse over the decades, including by a teacher, Scott Sargent, who was later fired for sexually abusing a student. That student was Ms. Sullivan.

The school settled with Ms. Sullivan, and Ms. Sullivan said she drew on those funds to pay for the billboards.

She rented them for one month last year to urge passage of the Child Victims Act, a proposal to extend the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse. The billboards — one in New York, near Ms. Sullivan’s former school, and one each in Massachusetts and Connecticut — criticized New York’s years of failure to pass the bill and directed observers to her website.

CreditNathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

She also hired a pilot to fly over the State Capitol with a plane trailing a sign about the Child Victims Act.

Several months later, New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or Jcope, sent Ms. Sullivan a letter noting her failure to register as a lobbyist, citing her spending. Registration involves paperwork and a $200 fee.

But Ms. Sullivan balked. She told regulators that because only one of the billboards had been in New York, and because it was digital — and therefore showed some images that did not mention the Child Victims Act — she had not exceeded $5,000.

In an interview, she declined to say how much she believed she had spent.

But, Ms. Sullivan said, even if she had reached the spending limit, she opposed being called a lobbyist.

She was representing only herself, not a client, she said. The state defines a lobbyist as someone “retained, employed or designated by any client to engage in lobbying.”

Nor did she stand to benefit financially from the Child Victims Act’s passage, as she had already settled her abuse allegations. (The bill failed last year but passed in January under the new Democratic-led State Legislature.)

“I just question how I, as a victim, am not able to say, ‘This is the best idea I’ve seen to be able to close these loopholes,’” Ms. Sullivan said.

“I am not the problem with corruption with New York State politics.”

The dispute escalated this month, when Jcope sent Ms. Sullivan a letter warning that the panel could open a formal investigation and fine her for as much as three times more than she spent.

A Jcope spokesman declined to comment on any possible investigations. But he said the law requires disclosure about how much people are spending to persuade lawmakers.

“We have procedures for handling potential unregistered lobbying and treat all people and entities allegedly involved in that unregistered lobbying the same way,” the spokesman, Walter McClure, said in a statement. “We will enforce the law and pursue the required disclosure.”

Still, ethics experts acknowledged the challenge of disentangling lobbying, activism and normal speech.

New York’s law leaves a loophole for individuals who spend copiously on a campaign without tying it to a specific bill or call to action, Ms. Rotman said. If Ms. Sullivan had not identified the Child Victims Act and only mentioned sexual abuse broadly, she would not have fallen under the state’s definition of lobbying.

New York’s law also does not account for stature. Ms. Sullivan compared her efforts to those by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the leader of the Archdiocese of New York, which opposed the Child Victims Act for years. Cardinal Dolan is not considered a lobbyist, but Ms. Sullivan said his influence far outweighed hers, even after she rented billboards. (The archdiocese also pays registered lobbyists.)

“They can just walk right into the Capitol and say, ‘I want to talk to Cuomo,’” she said of church leaders, referring to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “You can’t compete.”

But even relatively unknown activists can now shape public opinion in hard-to-measure ways, using social media.

Ms. Sullivan’s billboards earned stories in multiple news outlets, and she has also amplified her outrage on Facebook.

Still, even as modes of exerting influence have proliferated, regulators should be judicious with the label of lobbyist, said Susan Lerner, the director of Common Cause’s New York arm. Some experts have argued that overregulation strangles grass-roots activism.

“There’s been a long tradition of Americans being concerned about lobbyists,” Ms. Lerner said. But “there is a history here of a distinction between a paid lobbyist and a passionate citizen. And our laws properly should reflect that.”

But Alex Camarda, the senior policy adviser at Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog group, said the state’s money threshold was an “imperfect” but reasonable standard.

And, he added, the label of lobbyist should not carry such a stigma, as lobbyists provide expertise and diverse perspectives to lawmakers.

“That’s part of the democratic process,” Mr. Camarda said, “even though it has a negative connotation in some circumstances.”

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