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NY Dem Committee ads questioned as lobbying

ALBANY — The novel approach by the New York state Democratic Committee to air TV ads urging New Yorkers to twist their legislators’ arms to vote for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ethics and jobs legislation appears to violate state lobbying law, according to a good-government advocate and the state’s former lobbying enforcer.

In one of the Democratic Committee ads, Cuomo talks about his Clean Up Albany proposal and says: “Tell your legislators it’s time to clean up Albany.” In another, a voiceover says: “Tell your legislator to support Gov. Cuomo’s Tax Free New York Proposal and get upstate New York back to work.”

State lobbying law requires those seeking to influence lawmakers be registered as lobbyists so they are publicly identified and disclose their funding and spending to influence legislation. Political parties and committees have long believed they were exempt.

“If you are going to talk like a lobbyist and act like a lobbyist, you should have to register as a lobbyist,” Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said.

Cuomo has used the Democratic Committee he controls to promote his view of his proposals with the glowing ads since early this year. He turned to the committee after the lobbying group created to promote his proposals and accomplishments, the Committee to Save New York, abandoned the multimillion dollar media blitz when a new law required disclosure of its donors.

The Democratic Committee justifies its advertising based on a 2003 decision by the state lobbying board, which involved Cuomo’s first campaign for governor, an aborted run in 2002. The lobbying board found it was appropriate for Cuomo’s campaign committee to donate a total of $60,000 to two lobbying organizations that were seeking to overturn the Rockefeller-era drug laws and their long, mandatory sentences.

But David Grandeau, the state lobbying commission’s executive director in 2003 who wrote the opinion, noted that the decision didn’t exempt the political committee from registering as a lobbyist if it directly lobbies.

“It doesn’t apply and it never was intended to,” Grandeau said.

Of the Democratic Committee’s Cuomo ads, he said: “That’s lobbying, no ifs, ands or buts about it. It opens up a lot of doors, which is why parties didn’t do it.”

The Cuomo TV ads allowed the governor to barely touch his massive and nearly unassailable campaign fund of about $30 million as he runs for re-election in 2014.

“The election law already provides for full disclosure of receipts and expenditures by such political committees so supervision by JCOPE would be redundant,” said committee spokesman Peter Kauffmann, referring to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Cuomo’s spokesman declined comment.

The commission, which would rule on the concern if a complaint is filed, said that historically political party committees have not registered as lobbyists. Commission spokesman declined to comment on the Democratic Committee’s TV ads.

The state Republican Committee agrees that the Cuomo ads and political parties shouldn’t be subject to lobbying law.

Lobbying law requires more disclosure of how much money is spent to influence legislation, including spending that isn’t obvious or voluntarily announced, such as TV ads. Lobbying is also regulated by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics with a far larger staff of investigators than the underfunded Board of Elections, long criticized as an ineffective enforcer.

Also, election law requires financial disclosures only in January as the legislative session begins, and in June after most legislation and spending deals are passed. Lobbying law requires public disclosures every two months.

The conflict comes as the Democratic Committee is waging its own attack over political lobbying. The Democratic Committee is demanding that state Republican Chairman Ed Cox register as a lobbyist and says he has a personal conflict of interest. Cox is criticizing Cuomo for taking years to decide whether to allow hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in upstate New York. Cox, who holds millions of dollars in stock in a Texas gas drilling company, said has no interest in New York.