Celebrities protest against hydraulic fracking

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ALBANY, N.Y. -- Dozens of celebrities may be running afoul of the law as they unite under the banner of one group that is seeking to prevent fracking in New York state.

Artists Against Fracking opposes hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and boasts members including Yoko Ono, Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon.

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."

But the group and nearly 200 entertainers who are gaining attention and support in the dispute aren't registered lobbyists, according to a search by The Associated Press of the database of the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics. State law is designed to disclose who is trying to influence government action, how much money they are spending and where the money's going.

"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.

There's no public record of how much money Artists Against Fracking has spent, but its website contains links for visitors to make donations, which are directed to the Sustainable Markets Foundation. Although the foundation is an established charitable organization and its donations are recorded publicly, it isn't registered with New York as a lobbying client, either.

Under New York law, however, it appears Artists Against Fracking is required to be a registered lobbyist because the law hinges on spending over $5,000. The group hasn't filed lobbying reports, so the amount it has spent and what it was spent on isn't known publicly. Experts in Albany say the website and public events appear to have cost well over $5,000.

The group hasn't responded to requests for comment in the past two weeks. The group's account executive at its public relations firm, Fenton of New York City, didn't respond to a request for comment.

The group includes Ms. Ono and Sean Lennon, the widow and son of musician John Lennon. They recently attended an anti-fracking event in Albany with Mr. Ruffalo, actors Zooey Deschanel, Alec Baldwin and Hugh Jackman, and singer Lady Gaga, along with other longtime activists such as David Crosby and Paul McCartney. None of them are registered to lobby in New York.

A week ago, Artists Against Fracking widely released a music video done through Skype from various locations featuring dozens of entertainers singing a Sean Lennon song, "Don't Frack My Mother." In it, Ms. Ono sings part of the chorus, "Don't frack me!"

Failing to register as a lobbyist is not a criminal offense. Commonly, when a person new to lobbying is believed to have failed to lobby as required by law to track the influence of money on public policy, that person is given a chance to submit a lobbing form and pay a $200 fee.

One of the main players supporting fracking, the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York, is registered.

The line between lobbying and free speech isn't bright or clear, and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics wouldn't comment; it referred the AP to the law for clarification.

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."

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