Democrats may call for probe of foreign-agent filing lapses

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are considering asking for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) inquiry into widespread noncompliance with lobbying disclosure laws that govern foreign agents.

Registered foreign agents, so named because they represent the political interests of a foreign company or government, are being increasingly scrutinized thanks to ethics rules that prohibit them from paying for House members’ travel. A GAO inquiry would probably build momentum for the minority party’s push to tighten lobbying rules and make political hay out of debate over ethics standards in the chamber.

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This year’s only FARA-related bill was submitted by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Though the minority’s action is “still in the very early stages,” there is clear enthusiasm for change, said Michelle Persaud, counsel to House Judiciary Democrats. “It seems like the system is kind of a mess and a lot of things are slipping through the cracks.”

A foreign agent that gave a trip to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), for example, later tried to reverse its registration by arguing that its activities were purely educational. The Department of Justice’s (DoJ’s) policy of not discussing specific foreign-agent cases has hampered outside oversight of the rules.

In 2004, the Center for Public Integrity filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the DoJ’s massive foreign agent database. The DoJ denied access to the records, saying an electronic search of its information “could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating.”

“Our job is to enforce the laws that exist,” said DoJ spokesman Brian Sierra. In the case of a possible GAO inquiry, “we’d provide any information that we are asked to provide.” He declined to comment on the DoJ’s record of enforcing foreign-agent rules or any suggestions for modifying them.

The DoJ was incorrect in its May 2004 estimate that an online list of foreign agents could be made available by the beginning of this year, Sierra said. “There were computer and technical problems. I don’t know what the current status is of that.”

Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in 1938 to lower the volume of Nazi propaganda infiltrating American political discourse. FARA forms must be filed with the DoJ every six months, but their disclosure requirements are much stricter than those for domestic lobbyists.

“A good look at FARA is entirely appropriate,” said Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden Arps who specializes in lobbying compliance. “Whether it’s useful, and, if it is useful, whether it’s being administered in a way that makes a lot of sense.”

The law’s original goal of regulating cloak-and-dagger disinformation specialists evolved into regulating foreign corporations, but that changed in 1995 when the Lobbying Disclosure Act allowed overseas businesses with U.S. subsidiaries to register as domestic lobbyists.

Gross echoed many lobbying watchdogs who say FARA, and the DoJ’s administration of it, is stuck in the 1930s. “The information is so inaccessible, it’s so user-unfriendly,” he said. “There is an aura of intrigue and mystery around what’s supposed to be a public disclosure regime.”

Committee Democrats are likely to petition the GAO with the backing of individual members, such as Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the House Judiciary, and Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), chief sponsor of a strict lobbying-reform bill (see related story, Page 4). Still, there is no guarantee that the GAO will heed Democrats’ call to start looking into FARA.

“When we put in a request, they’ll look at what the request is asking and what they can or can’t do,” Persaud said. “Usually you put more than one request into a general request” to increase the chances that the nonpartisan GAO will examine an issue at least partially.

This year’s only FARA-related bill, submitted by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), would punish lawmakers who do business with foreign agents representing nations that have been deemed sponsors of terrorism by the State Department.

In the past five years, Ros-Lehtinen and 33 other lawmakers have accepted trips paid for by two Taiwanese business lobbying groups, the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce and the Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association. Both groups did not register with the DoJ as foreign agents, despite political affiliations that make them eligible under FARA.

One lobbyist who has registered under FARA is former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J., 1997-2002), who is serving as an agent of the Taiwanese economic and cultural office through his firm Rosemont Associates.

Spokespeople for Conyers and Meehan did not return calls for comment.