Congressman presses Holder for review of think tank funding

Should think tanks be allowed to take undisclosed donations from foreign governments?

That’s the question Rep. Frank WolfFrank Rudolph WolfBottom line Africa's gathering storm DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling MORE (R-Va.) is asking Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group Democrats look to state courts as redistricting battle heats up On The Trail: Census kicks off a wild redistricting cycle MORE to explore after a report last month found millions of dollars in previously undisclosed donations were funneled from governments to independent think tanks that wrote reports supporting the donors’ agenda.


“Although I do not believe any of these think tanks intentionally sought to circumvent the law or act inappropriately, it is clear that the department needs to review its guidance and enforcement of [the Foreign Agents Registration Act] FARA,” wrote Wolf, who chairs the appropriations panel that controls the DOJ’s budget.

Firms and individuals are required to register with the government, under FARA, if they are working on PR or advocacy on behalf of a foreign government or an entity owned by a foreign government within the United States.

In the first half of last year, FARA work generated millions of dollars for U.S. firms, according to a DOJ report to Congress.

“It would be helpful for the Justice Department to update its FARA regulations and guidance to help define whether the receipt of this form of foreign funding would qualify a think tank or non-profit group as a 'foreign agent,' " Frank wrote.

The New York Times found that more than two dozen prominent American think tanks — including the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council — had received at least $92 million from a minimum of 64 foreign governments since 2011.

The Times reported the funding has become a way for foreign governments to gain access and influence in Washington, while some researchers told the publication that they had been pressured to align papers with foreign donors’ positions.

While leaders at the research institutions denied any conflicts of interest from the arrangements, Wolf asked Holder to ensure that think tanks are held to the same standard as private firms.

“I am concerned that foreign states may be seeking to circumvent the law and use the credibility and perceived independence of think tanks to accomplish the same objectives that they would otherwise obtain through a for-profit firm,” Frank wrote.

“We are aware of the letter. ... We are reviewing it,” a Justice Department spokesman told the Times. He declined to say whether a review was underway.

A spokesman from Wolf’s office told The Hill that there had not yet been any response from the department.