Simmons faces Aug. 20 deadline in drug law lobby case

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What constitutes lobbying? That's the million-dollar question - or at least the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars question. That's roughly how much hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis could lose if the state Lobbying Commission decides that their recent activities protesting the Rockefeller drug laws are considered lobbying.

On June 4, under the aegis of the Coalition for Fairness, Simmons, Chavis and others organized a City Hall rally - featuring performers Mariah Carey, Susan Sarandon and Busta Rhymes - to protest the drug laws. Shortly afterward, Simmons accepted Gov. George Pataki's invitation to attend a marathon Albany meeting aimed at easing the state's drug penalties.

      The rally and meetings were aimed at repealing the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate prison terms from 15 years to life for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs. Reforms were not made by the end of the legislative session in June despite a concerted effort by many lawmakers.

Simmons, a Jamaica native, and Chavis now have an Aug. 20 deadline to comply with a state subpoena that seeks records and testimony about the June 4 rally and their other political activities.

Through examining those records, the Lobbying Commission hopes to determine whether or not Simmons and Chavis violated state lobbying laws. According to those laws, lobbyists must register and document any spending over $2,000 in order to reveal pressure and influence on state officials and legislators.

On July 28, Simmons filed a lawsuit with the Manhattan federal court against the commission on the grounds that the agency had violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of expression by investigating his actions. He sought a temporary restraining order in federal court to put a hold on that investigation.

Simmons and Chavis were scheduled to appear in federal court Thursday, Aug. 7, when Judge Loretta Preska is to hear their motion to quash the subpoena.

David Grandeau, executive director of the Lobbying Commission, said lobbying has entered a new era of "hip-hoppers and helicopters," and the commission must respond to changes in the industry.

"It's no longer a slap on the back and a whisper in the ear," said Grandeau. "You now are using much more sophisticated methods."

Grandeau questioned why Chavis filed a July 15 registration statement with the commission on behalf of the Coalition for Fairness that reported $300,000 in spending on lobbying. The coalition is part of the Hip-Hop Action Network, Simmons' nonprofit social activist organization.

When asked about the possible penalties Simmons faces, Grandeau said: "We don't know what happened or who paid for it yet. Until we know that I'm not going to draw any conclusions."

Jodi Miller, a spokeswoman for Russell Simmons, had no comment on the case.

Grandeau emphasized the lobbying commission's duty to the public.

"We're not trying to stop Mr. Simmons from lobbying. In fact, we encourage it," he said. "But if you're going to lobby then you need to report it."

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York City Civil Liberties Union, had a different opinion.

"The lobbying commission claims the right to monitor every piece of public advocacy," she said. "And that is a lobbying commission run amuck."

Grandeau's interpretation of the lobbying laws is "a recipe for abuse," according to Lieberman. "It's an invitation for over-extension, selective enforcement and the violation of fundamental rights."

Lieberman noted that the lobbying commission's investigation into Simmons's political activities could have a "chilling effect" on other people's exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Rachel Leone, executive director of Common Cause, a citizens' lobbying group, commented on the unclear definition of lobbying. "What is an education rally vs. what is actual lobbying?" Leone asked about Simmons's June 4 rally.

Yet regarding Simmons's other activities, Leone seemed to have no doubt about what is considered lobbying. "Clearly if you're sitting in a meeting with the governor and the leaders of the state, that would be lobbying," Leone said.

Developer Donald Trump and his associates paid $250,000 in fines in 2000 for not disclosing their attempts to lobby lawmakers to block casino gambling in New York.

Grandeau said that failure to register a report of lobbying activities with the lobbying commission every two months brings a $25,000 fine per report. The fine for a false registration filing when the source of funding is falsely declared carries a $50,000 fine.

Posted 7:23 pm, October 10, 2011
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