The number of individuals and entities registering as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registrations Act has seen a significant increase since the start of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into 2016 election meddling by Kremlin-aligned agitators.
Since the probe began in May 2017, there have been 104 new registrants. That’s a 75 percent increase year-over-year, according to an analysis of the FARA registrants database.
The findings are consistent with a new analysis from attorneys Andrew S. Boutros and John R. Schleppenbach at the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, who recently published a piece titled, “Department of Justice & Congress Signal Possibility of Increased Foreign Agents Registration Act Enforcement in 2018 and Beyond” for Bloomberg Law.
The legislation, enacted in 1938 requires that “persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”
The law has rarely been enforced, with only a handful of charges being brought over the past half-century prior to the Mueller indictments. Specifically, between 1966-2015, only seven criminal cases have been brought by the Department of Justice.
The primary reason is due to a policy of “voluntary compliance” by the Department of Justice — a policy which has largely incentivized lobbyists to not register.
“The number of criminal prosecutions for FARA violations in the last 50 years has been tiny. That may have contributed to people and companies being nonchalant or lackadaisical with complying with the statute,” Boutros, a specialist in this area of law, told LaCorte News.
Furthermore, many are hesitant to officially register because their clients wish to keep the source of the funds as secret as possible — not wanting to lift the veil on the backchannels of foreign influence in political affairs.
Additionally, there are administrative and legal costs associated with complying with the law.
WHY IT’S COMING INTO FOCUS NOW
The findings come amid a heightened awareness from lobbyists in Washington over the need for proper disclosure, especially with the recent indictments of Paul Manafort, Robert Gates, and Michael Flynn.
Furthermore, Tony Podesta, the brother of 2016 Clinton campaign manager John Podesta left the Podesta Group lobbying firm late last year following questions surrounding improper FARA filings stemming from the group’s work for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.
Many foreign lobbyists work on behalf of foreign governments on things like ad campaigns on a particular issue, or to act as a PR arm to improve a certain country’s image in the U.S.
Among the notable names who have filed since the Mueller probe include notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
A 2016 audit of FARA filings found that the majority of registrants filed the proper documentation late.
“I fear that FARA violations are happening around this town all the time,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said at a Judiciary Committee back in July.
Under Sen. Charles Grassley’s (R-IA) “Disclosing Foreign Influence Act”, the Justice Department would be required to take heightened enforcement measures to ensure effective compliance with FARA. The bill would also eliminate broad exemptions under the law that have been the subject of much scrutiny.
“FARA appears poised to shake off its long period of dormancy and become a new enforcement tool that businesses and their executives must account for and fully comply with. Failure to do so may result in federal investigation, if not prosecution and conviction,” Boutros and Schleppenbach note in their article.
The most notable exemption is the “commercial exemption.” Under current law, if a lobbyist is working on behalf of a foreign business, they can file under the less rigorous Lobbying Disclosure Act.
“Sen. Grassley’s push to expand and beef up FARA suggests that maybe this is the beginning of a new renaissance in the government bringing FARA charges,” Boutros added.
While President Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp,” it appears that Mueller actions himself — along with proposals like Sen. Grassley’s — are laying the groundwork for heightened enforcement and to offer a level of transparency to foreign lobbying activities.