Fact Sheet: Foreign Lobbying Reform

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires American lobbyists representing foreign governments or political parties to register their activities with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and submit regular documentation describing their activities. A 2014 investigation by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) found a significant number of loopholes, poor compliance and a lack of enforcement by the DOJ.

Why this matters: FARA is intended to provide transparency into how foreign governments attempt to influence US policies on everything from foreign aid to multi-billion dollar arms deals. But when lobbyists fail to register or properly disclose their activities, the public and even Congress can be left in the dark about how their laws are shaped and influenced.

Unacceptable Compliance

In 2016 the Department of Justice Inspector General found that the lack of compliance with the law was “unacceptable.”

  • 62% of new FARA registrants from 2013-2015 filed their documentation late.
  • Over 50% of FARA registrants failed to file their disclosure information in a timely manner.
  • 47% of FARA registrants failed to properly disclose that they were working on behalf of a foreign client. 

Weak Enforcement

The DOJ has two enforcement mechanisms available to deal with violations: pursuing criminal charges or filing a civil injunction. But generally DOJ relies on “voluntary compliance.”

  • The Department has only pursued criminal charges for FARA violations seven times in the last 50 years.
  • The Department has not pursued a civil injunction for FARA violations since 1991.

Significant Loopholes

There are several exemptions within the law that allows foreign lobbyists to register under the far less strict Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). Doing so requires them to provide far less information about their activities. These exemptions are not well understood and often allow foreign lobbying work to go unreported to the DOJ.

Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, cited an “uncertain standard” as his reason for registering his activities under the LDA instead of FARA.

Unclear Reporting Requirements

Every six months, FARA registrants must disclose any political activity they engaged in on behalf of their foreign clients.

POGO has found that most foreign lobbyists do not provide a useful, detailed description of the activity they engaged in. Additionally, this information is filed late 50 percent of the time.

Recommendations:

  1. Incorporate Civil Fines to Improve Enforcement
  2. Congress should amend FARA to give DOJ the authority to levy civil fines to punish offenders who do not properly label their FARA filings, who file late, who don’t file if they should have, or who don’t register if they should have. These penalties should increase with the severity and number of infractions.

  3. Clarify Reporting Requirements Under FARA
  4. We recommend FARA registrants be required to provide a more detailed description of their political activities, including a list of any meetings conducted with policymakers, who they met with, the dates of the meetings, and the issue or issues discussed. Congress should require DOJ to add this language to the existing requirements for disclosures in Question 12 of the Statements.

  5. Monitor the DOJ’s Formal Assessment of FARA Exemptions
  6. The DOJ is currently performing a review of FARA exemptions and is expected to have specific recommendations for legislative changes in June. We and the DOJ IG recommend that this Committee work with the authorizing committees to monitor this review and make any needed legislative changes after the DOJ finishes its review.

lydia dennett

By: Lydia Dennett, Investigator

Lydia Dennett is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Lydia works on safety and security of nuclear weapons and power facilities, foreign lobbying and influence, and works with Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblowers.

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