ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York ethics officials are threatening to fine a woman for unregistered lobbying after she rented billboards to criticize state laws on molestation and share her own story of abuse.
Kat Sullivan, a nurse who says she was assaulted by a teacher at a private school in upstate New York two decades ago, was part of the successful push that got lawmakers in Albany to relax the statute of limitations on molestation cases earlier this year.
Last year, as part of the effort, she rented three billboards to criticize the old law, which contained some of the nation’s tightest limits on the timing of molestation charges or lawsuits. She got the idea from the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in which a woman uses billboards to seek justice for her daughter’s murder.
Sullivan also set up a website and hired a pilot to fly a plane around Albany carrying a banner supporting the legislation.
Then she received a letter from state ethics officials saying she could be fined for violating a law requiring individuals to register as lobbyists if they spend more than $5,000 on efforts to influence the Legislature.
“They’re talking about fining me up to $75,000,” Sullivan, who has refused to agree to the commission’s terms, said Wednesday. “This is intentional overreach. They’re targeting citizens. They’re worried about citizens having access to equal representation in government.”
Walt McClure, a spokesman for the commission, declined to discuss the specifics of the case but said the commission treats all people and organizations the same when it comes to lobbying.
“The law requires disclosure to the public about who is lobbing their lawmakers and how much is being spent on those lobbying efforts,” he said in a statement.
The conflict, first reported in The Times Union of Albany, highlights the increasingly blurred lines between paid lobbying and political advocacy by individuals or grassroots groups trying to be heard in a state Capitol known for insiders, cronyism and backroom dealing.
The Child Victims Act passed in January following years of efforts by abuse victims and their advocates.
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 creates a one-year window for past victims to file civil suits that had been barred by the old statute of limitations. That window opens Aug. 14.
Powerful institutions including the Catholic Church had long opposed the act. Yet Sullivan noted that Cardinal Timothy Dolan isn’t a registered lobbyist even though he spoke out against the bill.
The Catholic Church did hire paid lobbyists, however, who are registered with the state — something Sullivan said ordinary citizens can’t afford to do.
Sullivan said she spent about $14,000 on the three billboards, though only one of them was in New York state. The other two were in Massachusetts and Connecticut — places where the person Sullivan accused of rape 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.
She said it makes no sense to compare her actions to those of a professional lobbyist paid by another organization to influence lawmakers. She’s hired an attorney and said she’s ready to fight any attempt to fine her.
“The right thing for them to do is to drop it,” she said.