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Justice Dept. Watchdog Confirms “Unacceptable” FARA Compliance

Yesterday the Department of Justice Inspector General’s office released an audit on the Department’s enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) that offered several findings and recommendations similar to a 2014 Project On Government Oversight (POGO) report.

FARA is a law that requires American individuals working to influence US policy on behalf of foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and disclose information on any and all political activity in which they engaged for foreign clients. But POGO examined thousands of materials spanning four years, as well as additional public records related to the Justice Department’s oversight of lobbyists for foreign interests, and found a pattern of lax compliance and enforcement of FARA.

Although this law may seem obscure, it recently became a front-and-center topic on the 2016 election campaign trail.

The DOJ Inspector General (IG) audit confirmed that late filing and lack of compliance with the law is rampant. The auditors studied FARA registrants’ compliance between 2013 and 2015 and found “documents were routinely submitted late, and in some instances, registrants had ceased submitting required documentation entirely.” For example:

  • 62 percent of new registrants in this time period filed their registration documents late.
  • 50 percent of registrants failed to file in a timely manner their supplemental statements describing their activities, as is required every six months.
  • 15 percent of active registrants reviewed “had ceased filing altogether or were over six months delinquent.”
  • 61 percent of informational materials reviewed were not filed on time and 47 percent did not include the required disclosure statement indicating the materials were distributed on behalf of a foreign client.

The auditors concluded that “these compliance rates are unacceptable.”

POGO detailed similar findings in a 2014 report, which was summarized in the DOJ IG audit’s appendix. The auditors stated that previous reports done by the Government Accountability Office in 1974, 1980, and 1990, and public interest groups such as POGO and the Sunlight Foundation, had identified issues “including timeliness and the use of available enforcement tools,” indicating that problems with the law have been known for decades.

One reason these records may be incomplete, POGO found, was DOJ’s reliance on “voluntary compliance” to enforce the law. When POGO investigators spoke to FARA Unit employees about the use of injunctive remedies allowed under the law, such as suspending a registrant until documents are submitted, they told us “the FARA Unit has not pursued injunctive remedy options recently and has instead utilized other mechanisms to achieve compliance.” In fact, the DOJ IG found DOJ hasn’t used an injunctive remedy since 1991.

DOJ IG the auditors stated, “based on the widespread delinquencies we found, we believe that there may be circumstances in which an injunctive remedy or other penalty is merited.”

Perhaps most frustratingly, the DOJ IG found that not all of the parties involved in enforcing the law agree on its intent. “During these discussions we found differing understandings between field agents and prosecutors and [DOJ] officials about the intent of FARA as well as what constitutes a prosecutable FARA case.” The DOJ IG auditors stressed the need for a comprehensive Department enforcement strategy on FARA, as well as clear lines of communication between the different offices.

POGO is pleased to see such a comprehensive review of FARA enforcement and it is our hope that both Justice Department officials and Congress will take these recommendations seriously.