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NY ethics panel targets ‘grass-roots’ lobbying, editorials

The state Senate meets at the Capitol on

The state Senate meets at the Capitol on Monday, May 4, 2015, in Albany.  Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll


The state’s lobbying regulator on Tuesday required public relations consultants to register their efforts to influence government through public campaigns — including newspaper editorials — in a move one public relations firm said would allow government to spy on journalists.

By a 10-3 vote led by appointees of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) approved the expanded definition of lobbying to include public relations consultants.

At issue is the rise in public relations campaigns often called “grass-roots” efforts that seek funding or policies through rallies at the State Capitol. These efforts are often critical of governors and their tools include demonstrations and the use of support from newspaper editorial boards. These activities aren’t regulated by traditional lobbying laws because they don’t include the direct interaction of a lobbyist with a government official.

Opponents said the measure would force public relations consultants to divulge their interactions with reporters who are gathering news. Chairman Dan Horwitz countered that the rule would only require a consultant to report his or her general activity in trying to influence public policy by meeting with newspaper editorial boards. Horwitz said the rule doesn’t require divulging contact with newsgathering reporters.

The editorial boards wouldn’t have to be identified in the consultants’ reports, according to JCOPE. The written proposal was amended to clarify that no reporting was required on meetings between consultants with reporters, but some JCOPE members didn’t think the amendment was strong enough.

A Cuomo spokesman said the inclusion of editorial boards in the advisory is a concern.

“This raises some real questions and we’ll be reviewing it very closely,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.

One public relations firm said Tuesday that it won’t abide by the new advisory, which the firm says violates the Constitution’s protection of free speech and a free press.

“If Andrew Cuomo wants to fit us for handcuffs, so be it,” said Jessica Proud and Bill O’Reilly in a statement from The November Team firm, whose clients include Republican politicians. “There is no more precious freedom in this country than the right to free speech, and we will fight for it.”

O’Reilly said Tuesday, “Requiring (public relations) professionals to report interactions with the press would have a chilling effect on the p.r. and news industries and severely limit the free exchange of ideas.”

JCOPE’s majority, however, argued that consultants who lead “grass-roots” efforts to change public policy engage in this new definition of lobbying when they seek supportive editorials in newspapers.

“If you’re getting paid to influence public policy, you should have to report,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, in supporting JCOPE’s new measure. “But there are their lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”


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