NY fracking foes: will become lobby if necessary

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Artists Against Fracking said Monday neither the group nor Yoko Ono or Sean Lennon have been told to register as lobbyists in their campaign against gas drilling in New York, but will if necessary to continue their work.

A good-government advocate and two lobbying experts said the state should review whether Artists Against Fracking and its supporter-celebrities should be registered as lobbyists.

The group and nearly 200 entertainers connected with it aren’t currently registered lobbyists, a search by The Associated Press of the database of the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics shows.

Registration would require disclosure of how much money the group has raised and how it’s been spent _ a measure intended as a way for the public to know who is influencing public policy.

David Fenton, a spokesman for the group, said it would have no objection if required to register.

Yoko and Sean, as true with many New Yorkers, have expressed concerns about fracking, participated in the submission of comments to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and visited Albany with their own resources,” Fenton said. “As such, neither Yoko, Sean, nor their Artists Against Fracking endeavor have been required to be registered lobbyists. If there is a need to register, of course, that will occur.”

Over the years, several celebrities or their groups have been required to register as lobbyists. But whether celebrities must register hinges on its specific circumstances. The line between lobbying and free speech isn’t bright or clear.

Under state law, a lobbyist is defined as any person or organization “employed, retained” in “any attempt to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation … or approval or disapproval of any legislation by the governor.” That can include nonprofit groups and their unpaid advocates.

The activists, among them actors Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon, are trying to protect the environment from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The group says forcing water and chemicals deep into shale deposits to extract gas threatens drinking water and the environment.

The group’s website implores, “Tell Governor Cuomo: Don’t Frack New York.”

“You spend money lobbying, you have to register,” said David Grandeau, former executive director of the state lobbying commission and now an attorney representing lobbyists and clients. On Monday, after an AP article appeared on the group, he added: “It’s clearly lobbying” and said the commission “missed the boat.”

A good-government advocate said the lobbying regulator, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, should look into the case.

“When someone is trying to influence or change public opinion, there’s always a concern if the public doesn’t know exactly how much money they are spending to do that,” said Barbara Bartoletti, of the League of Women Voters. “I don’t know if they are splitting hairs between educating the public or lobbying.”

The commission can’t confirm or deny it will take on any case, spokesman John Milgrim said.

Ravi Batra, a former member of the commission board, called it an important issue.

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