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A Philly teacher's stunts draw interest from the Board of Ethics

A Philadelphia public school teacher used a billboard and banner plane to draw attention to stalled contract talks. And then the Philadelphia Board of Ethics came calling, saying that makes him a lobbyist who must register with the city.

Chances are, you don't know the name George Bezanis.

But you may have heard of the high-profile stunts the Philadelphia public school educator has pulled this year.

And, soon, you may hear more about Bezanis. It looks as if the Central High School social studies teacher, who has used a billboard and a banner plane to protest the lack of a new union contract for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, will be butting heads with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics.

Call it the gadfly vs. Goliath.

Bezanis has a knack for getting noticed. He wanted people to think about how teachers have been working without a new contract since 2013.

So he put up a GoFundMe web page in February and raised $5,945 to pay for a billboard that stood for six weeks along the southbound lanes of I-95 between the Girard Avenue and Center City exits.

"Welcome to Philadelphia, where we don't value our public school children, 5+ years without a raise for our teachers, with love, SRC, Mayor Kenney and superintendent," the billboard declared.

Next came the NFL Draft Experience on April 27 on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Bezanis raised $2,810 for a banner plane to circle above for 4½ hours, trailing the message, "City Hall ❤ Sports But Hates Our Teachers."

Six days after that stunt, Bezanis received a telephone voice message from a Board of Ethics attorney, who said the billboard and banner plane were "reportable lobbying under the city's lobbying law." He needed to register as a lobbyist, the attorney said in the message, or face a financial penalty.

The law covers "indirect communication," such as a billboard or banner plane, that encourages the public to take some action to influence "legislative or administrative action."

Lobbyists must register, file expense reports, and pay a $200 annual fee if they spend $2,500 or more in a quarter of the calendar.

Bezanis raised more than that in the first and second quarters of 2017.

The city's lobbying law sets the fine for not filing at $250 a day, up to a cap of $2,000.

Bezanis called the Board of Ethics. And then he called his own lawyer, Claiborne Newlin.

"It seems like they're trying to silence me, like an intimidation factor," Bezanis said of the Board of Ethics. "I'm fed up with it."

Newlin had his own conversation with the Board of Ethics. And then he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which may write a letter in support of Bezanis.

"They thought the Board of Ethics had overstepped its bounds by threatening to compel George to register," Newlin said of the ACLU.

Shane Creamer, executive director of the Board of Ethics, said he is not allowed to comment on communications the agency has with individuals on such matters  as lobbyist registration.

Speaking generally, Creamer noted that all 50 states, the federal government, and most major cities, have lobbying laws. The courts have consistently found that they do not violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protection for free speech.

The board last month fined a union in Philadelphia $2,000 for using a public relations consultant to lobby City Council. The consultant, as part of the agreement, registered as a lobbyist.

And in November, the board fined a charter school $2,000 for a similar offense. There, too, a media consultant had to register as a lobbyist.

It's been a month since Bezanis and his lawyer last heard from the Board of Ethics, an agency not exactly known for letting things slide. And their impending conflict is still out there, like a billboard along the road or a banner plane overhead, waiting to impart a message.