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Loopholes, Filing Failures, and Lax Enforcement: How the Foreign Agents Registration Act Falls Short

Why This Matters

The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires American lobbyists working on behalf of foreign clients to disclose significantly more information about their activities than what is required of domestic lobbyists. This includes the actual documents used to influence policy makers, called informational materials. These materials include draft legislation, speeches, press releases and more, all created to influence U.S. policy. But the lobbyists do not always follow the letter of the law and enforcement by the Justice Department has been lax in recent years. Furthermore, the law itself seems to have loopholes that make enforcement difficult if not impossible. The Foreign Agents Registration Act is intended to bring transparency into the world of foreign lobbying. But when American lobbyists working on behalf of foreign interests fail to follow the law, or the Justice Department fails to enforce it, the American people are left in the dark.

Executive Summary

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires that all American citizens working to influence U.S. policy on behalf of foreign governments register with the Department of Justice and to disclose information on any and all political activity in which they engaged for foreign clients. This includes filing, within 48 hours, any informational materials disseminated to two or more people.

The Project On Government Oversight examined thousands of these materials spanning four years, as well as additional public records related to the Justice Department’s oversight of lobbyists for foreign interests. We found that lobbyists for foreign interests have routinely failed to comply with the law—a failure that prevents journalists and watchdogs from scrutinizing the lobbying activities while foreign interests are trying to influence U.S. policy. We found a pattern of lax enforcement of FARA requirements by the Justice Department. We found that the Justice Department office responsible for administering the law is a record-keeping mess. And we found loopholes in the law that often make it difficult if not impossible for the government to police compliance or to discipline lobbyists who fail to comply.

We found that lobbyists for foreign interests have routinely failed to comply with the law.

Here are some highlights of our investigation:

  • We set out to determine the extent to which lobbyists for foreign interests were filing lobbying materials at the Justice Department within the required time frame. Based on a review of filings made in 2012, in those instances where it was possible to answer the question, POGO estimates that almost half—46 percent—were filed late. Fifteen percent were filed more than 30 business days after they were distributed, and 12 percent were filed more than 100 business days after they were distributed.
  • In many instances, the Justice Department would be hard pressed to enforce the filing deadline. Based on the records the Department maintains to enforce the law, we found that in more than a quarter (26 percent) of the 2012 filings, it was impossible to determine whether the lobbyists complied. For example, in many cases, the records did not show when the lobbyists disseminated the materials to the targets of their lobbying. In a glaring omission, the law does not require lobbyists to provide that information. Without it, there may be no way for the government or the public to know whether lobbying materials were filed on time.
  • Though federal law bars foreign money from U.S. political campaigns, there appears to be a gray area in the law that can let in such money indirectly. POGO found many instances in which members of lobbying firms made political contributions to Members of Congress on the same day that those firms were lobbying the Members of Congress or their legislative staffs on behalf of foreign clients.
  • Lobbyists who fail to comply with certain FARA requirements may have little to fear from the Justice Department. “The cornerstone of the Registration Unit’s enforcement efforts is encouraging voluntary compliance,” a Justice Department website says. When lobbyists do not voluntarily comply, the Justice Department rarely uses one of the key tools at its disposal to enforce the law—seeking a court injunction. A representative of the Department’s FARA unit told POGO: “While the FARA statute and regulations authorize the pursuit of formal legal proceedings, such as injunctive remedy options, the FARA Unit [has] not pursued injunctive remedy options recently and has instead utilized other mechanisms to achieve compliance.”
  • It appears that some registered foreign agents have been distributing materials but not filing them with the Justice Department. It’s unclear the extent to which that illustrates a lack of compliance with the law or loopholes in the law. In the process of researching this report, POGO noticed that many more lobbyists were registering as foreign agents than had filed informational materials that we could locate at the FARA office. To determine what was happening, we looked at a sampling of questionnaires that the Justice Department requires registered agents to complete every six months. Some checked one box indicating they had distributed materials and another box stating they did not file them with the FARA office.
  • The law requires lobbyists for foreign interests to plainly and conspicuously identify themselves as such in any materials distributed in the course of their lobbying—for example, emails, other correspondence, or publications. We found that many documents filed with the Justice Department lack this identification statement; furthermore, many lobbyists admitted that they did not comply with this requirement. More than half (51 percent) of the registrants we examined in a sample from 2010 checked a box on a the semi-annual Justice Department questionnaire saying they had filed informational materials, and checked another box saying they had not met the legal requirement that they identify themselves in those materials as working on behalf of foreign interests.

Toby Moffett, a former Member of Congress from Connecticut who is now Chairman of the Moffett Group and one of its registered lobbyists, told POGO that “Around the edges there’s a lot of loosey-goosey stuff going on. People representing foreign interests and not reporting.”

But even when lobbyists do report to the Justice Department, the information they provide is not easily accessible to the public. Astonishingly, informational materials are not available online, despite the fact that the Justice Department has an electronic filing system. Instead, these documents are kept in an office at the Justice Department that is only open for four hours each weekday. Hard copies of the documents are kept in folders that are often disorganized and susceptible to misfiling. This archaic system undermines the intended transparency of the law.

When lobbyists for foreign interests do not follow the law, when the U.S. government fails to enforce it, and when the Justice Department makes it difficult for the American people to access records to which they are legally entitled, the public is left in the dark. To bring more transparency to this opaque realm, POGO has made four years of informational materials available for the first time online with our Foreign Influence Database, allowing the public to see how lobbyists attempt to influence American policies on behalf of their foreign clients.

Contributions to research and writing by Ben Freeman, Lydia Dennett, Neil Gordon, and Angela Canterbury. Edited by Danni Downing, David Hilzenrath, and Michael Smallberg.

Click here to read the full report.