Lawmakers push to toughen foreign lobbying rules
Lawmakers called for strengthening laws on how the Department of Justice (DOJ) regulates foreign lobbying efforts at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
The hearing comes with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the spotlight amid probes into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and as former Trump campaign officials register retroactively as foreign lobbyists.
Three key witnesses who had been invited to testify, though, were absent.
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had been subpoenaed but later reached an agreement to be interviewed by the panel’s staff privately.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, as well as Glenn Simpson, whose firm, Fusion GPS, helped craft a dossier of unsubstantiated claims about Trump, also made deals to speak to behind closed doors.
Manafort and Trump Jr., are under scrutiny over a meeting they attended at Trump Tower during the campaign with figures connected to the Russian government after being promised dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Senators instead questioned officials from the DOJ and the FBI about compliance issues. Lawmakers from both parties expressed concern that FARA was falling short.
FARA relies on voluntary compliance. If a person fails to register for work done on behalf or influenced by a foreign government, they can avoid punishment as long as they eventually file the paperwork.
“Why would DOJ expect people to register and to be transparent, when they aren’t really punished for failing to register?” asked Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
In the last decade, only four FARA cases have been prosecuted.
Officials from the DOJ and FBI also testified that there has been a drop in foreign agent registration since the 1990s.
More than half of FARA documents studied by the Justice Department’s inspector general had been filed late.
The FARA unit at DOJ also lacks subpoena powers and must primarily rely on news reports, public information or referrals from other agencies to help identify those who may be violating the law. Officials also must prove a “willful” violation to register under FARA to prosecute — something Adam Hickey, head of the DOJ’s National Security Division, called a challenging bar.
In June, Manafort retroactively registered for $17 million worth of work he did from 2012 to 2014 that benefited Ukraine’s pro-Russia Party of Regions.
He registered after The Associated Press reported that his firm had orchestrated a lobbying campaign with K Street firms Podesta Group and Mercury to push the interests of pro-Russian Ukrainian government officials. Those firms had filed domestic lobbying disclosures, but also filed retroactive foreign lobbying registration forms with the Justice Department earlier this year.
Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn retroactively registered as a foreign agent in March for work he did during the campaign that benefited the Turkish government.
Foreign lobbying requirements are much stricter than those under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the domestic lobbying law. Foreign agents must post contracts with clients and file updates every six months detailing contacts with the press, government officials and individuals at nonprofits and think tanks, for example.
Lawmakers in both chambers are already looking for ways to reform FARA.
A bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) would give the National Security Division of DOJ — which oversees FARA activity — more powers, eliminate filing fees and give agents more time to submit certain required disclosures. The House has companion legislation.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz cited filing fees, implemented in 1993, as contributing to the drop in foreign agent registrations
A forthcoming bill from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) reportedly will close an exemption in FARA that allows people to avoid registering with the DOJ if they represent a private foreign interest and disclose the relationship under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, according to a lobbyist working on the issue.
Government watchdogs are also pushing for an update to FARA that would give the DOJ more power to go after potential lawbreakers.
“Congress should clarify reporting requirements, provide the department the ability to levy civil fines, and close the exemption loopholes — specifically the one that would allow some lobbyists representing foreign interests not to register under FARA,” said Project on Government Oversight’s Lydia Dennett. She also called for requiring disclosures of foreign donations to think tanks.
Experts, though, expressed skepticism that FARA reform bills would advance in Congress amid the controversy over foreign influence in the election.
“You would say that given the issues that are being raised surrounding the election, surrounding lobbying by foreign entities in general that yes, this would be an environment from both sides of the aisle to address whatever loopholes or restrictions in current law,” said Jason Abel, a lawyer who helped Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) craft the Closing the Foreign Lobbying Loophole Act of 2008. The act was never passed.
But Abel said he believed the Russia probes would ultimately be too politically divisive.
The Judiciary Committee will pick up the hearing on Thursday, with questions for investor William Browder, who alleged that a group of U.S.-based individuals, including Simpson, were lobbying to repeal the Magnitsky Act to benefit Russian government interests.
The Magnitsky Act put sanctions on certain Russian individuals as punishment for the suspicious death of Russian lawyer and Kremlin critic Sergei Magnitsky. Russia responded by cutting off the U.S. adoption of Russian children.