Dem senators call for probe of foreign lobbying

Prominent Democratic senators have called upon the Justice Department to investigate its enforcement of foreign lobbying rules in light of recent reports regarding noncompliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), joined by presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo), wrote to Glenn Fine, the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG), last week, calling for the probe.

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Advocating for foreign governments and political parties, which needs to be disclosed under FARA, has taken on an added significance because of recent scrutiny of senior campaign aides in this year’s presidential race who have lobbied in the past.

“Violations of the disclosure law that go unpunished can undermine U.S. policy and pose national security risks to the American people. Furthermore, any specter of uneven or lax enforcement can render a very important statute toothless,” reads the senators’ July 9 letter to Fine.

Specifically, Schumer and the other senators called upon the IG to coordinate an examination of Justice’s enforcement record on FARA and analyze all considerations taken by the department when deciding whether or how to enforce the law. They also asked Fine to release a report on his findings to them as well as the relevant congressional committees.

Justice has received the letter from the senators and is considering it.

“We are reviewing the request contained in the letter,” said Cynthia Schnedar, counselor to the Justice Department’s IG.

The letter was sent shortly after Schumer introduced legislation that would amend FARA. Obama and McCaskill have joined New York’s senior senator in co-sponsoring his bill.

Many have suspected that Schumer introduced the bill to target senior advisers to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, such as Rick Davis, whose firm, Davis Manafort, has been involved in lobbying for foreign clients. But Schumer’s aides have denied that politics inspired the legislation.

Schumer’s proposed legislation would make two significant changes to the foreign lobbying law.

The first would have registered foreign agents report contacts they have with U.S. government officials outside of America. The second would force foreign-owned companies to register their lobbyists as foreign agents instead of under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), as they do now.  

The latter change has attracted opposition from foreign-owned corporations that have substantial U.S. operations. The Organization for International Investment (OFII) has led the charge against Schumer’s bill, arguing companies are already disclosing their lobbying activities under the lobbying disclosure law.

Todd Malan, OFII’s president and CEO, said an investigation by Justice’s IG would only prove there is little issue with lobbyists disclosing under FARA.

“If they want Justice to do a study on this, I think that will only buttress our case. This is a solution in search of a problem,” Malan said.

Joseph Sandler, a partner at Sandler, Reiff & Young , said the Justice’s IG examining FARA makes sense in Washington’s current climate.

“With all the focus on the ethics and lobbying law, it makes sense to ask for an investigation,” said Sandler. “It is a logical outgrowth of asking for increased enforcement and making sure lobbying registration compliance is met.”

Sandler is an expert on lobbying law and has written a chapter on FARA for the American Bar Association’s lobbying manual. The attorney said it is tough to know how many lobbyists are avoiding disclosure under FARA.

“There probably is some innocent ignorance or just not wanting to deal with it by firms just getting into foreign lobbying. But it is hard to know how much noncompliance is going on out there,” said Sandler.

In the meantime, OFII will continue to make the case against Schumer’s bill, believing it unfairly discriminates against foreign-owned companies with U.S. subsidiaries.

“There is a difference in lobbying for Sony and lobbying for Iran,” said Malan.

The trade association plans to highlight its membership ties to lawmakers’ voters across the country.

“There is not one state where we do not have a significant constituent relationship,” said Malan. “This change will change how you will interact with us. Do you want to come to your constituent’s plant opening when it is represented in Washington by a foreign agent?”