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Washington lobbyists put on notice over foreign agent law

May 22, 2018

FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2017, file photo, former President Donald Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn leaves federal court in Washington. Robert Mueller charged former campaign chairman Paul Manafort with failing to register as a foreign agent despite being paid millions from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, and court papers show Flynn did undisclosed work directed in part by Turkish government officials. A federal case against a Pakistani man is putting Washington lobbyists on notice. The prosecution reflects what officials say is a more aggressive enforcement strategy against unregistered foreign agents that began before Robert Mueller’s investigation laid bare a shadowy world of international influence peddling. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A recent and rare prosecution of a Pakistani man in Maryland under a relatively obscure lobbying law has many in the multimillion dollar world of foreign influence bracing for more.

The prosecution of Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry reflects what current and former Justice Department officials say is an aggressive enforcement strategy against unregistered foreign agents that began even before special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation exposed a shadowy world of international influence peddling. The effort comes amid revelations about Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and a stream of high-profile foreign-agent filings from President Donald Trump’s associates.

In the last two years, the former White House national security adviser has had to register, as have Trump’s former campaign chairman and a top Democratic lobbyist and brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Officials say they’re not interpreting any differently the little-known law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires people to disclose to the Justice Department when they lobby in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments or political entities. But they’ve been taking a more aggressive approach, asking more probing questions of people and firms they suspect need to register, requesting more documents and conducting investigations with an eye toward bringing criminal charges when appropriate.

“Wherever we were before, it is a statute that should be enforced using all of our tools, and in circumstances where someone has willfully failed to register or there are indications of that, we should be pursuing it criminally,” Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general for national security, said in an interview.

The stepped-up enforcement coincides with a special counsel investigation that has underscored how foreign entities have worked behind the scenes to influence the agenda of lawmakers and shape public thinking, often with average Americans being none the wiser.

Mueller charged former campaign chairman Paul Manafort with failing to register as a foreign agent despite being paid millions from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, and court papers show ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn did undisclosed work directed in part by Turkish government officials. An indictment against a Russian troll farm accused of interfering in the election through bogus Facebook posts has also revealed how foreign entities can weaponize social media to sway political opinion.

“That should worry and anger any American who cares about protecting the integrity of our political system and the integrity of our political discourse,” said David Laufman, who until earlier this year led the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section and oversaw its FARA enforcement. It’s essential, he added, “for the American people and lawmakers to know when a foreign government or political party is behind any efforts to sway their opinion or decision making.”

The FARA law was enacted in 1938 to expose Nazi propaganda. Since then it’s been a relatively esoteric corner of law, with the Justice Department long emphasizing voluntary compliance over criminal convictions. Though high-profile FARA investigations of Trump advisers have been well-publicized, they’re still rare.

Criminal cases have been so unusual that the recent one against Chaudhry was only the ninth since 1966, officials say.

Prosecutors say Chaudhry, who held himself out as president of the Pakistan American League, organized roundtable discussions aimed at influencing U.S. policy even as he insisted that his work was educational and not affiliated with the Pakistani government.

He admitted this month to secretly working as an unregistered agent on behalf of the Pakistani government and faces up to five years in prison at his July sentencing, though prosecutors have agreed to recommend home detention and probation.

FARA specialists say the case is likely just the beginning.

“We’ve been saying for some time to our clients that there’s an ongoing Department of Justice FARA enforcement push underway,” said Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, who handled his FARA registration last year. “This public announcement of a new prosecution is some of the first public evidence of that rapidly escalating initiative.”

Attorney Thomas Spulak said clients are also getting the message, reaching out about whether they need to register and whether they might qualify for an exemption.

“It may be in the past that people thought they understood,” he said. “Now they want to make sure they understand.”

Justice Department data supports the view. As the investigations of Manafort and Flynn drew public attention, FARA registrations spiked in 2017 with 102 new registrants, the highest since 1995 when Congress passed the Lobbying Disclosure Act. That law carved out an exemption to FARA allowing some lobbyists representing foreign companies to register with Congress instead of the Justice Department.

The data show the department also opened 34 inquiries into people it suspects of needing to register last year, the most since at least 2013. So far this year, the department is on pace to see even more inquiries opened and more new registrants.

The renewed emphasis started as far back as late 2014 and was further accelerated by a 2016 inspector general’s audit criticizing the department for uneven enforcement. Outside pressure escalated with the investigations of Flynn, Manafort and his longtime deputy, Rick Gates.

Those investigations, which predated Mueller’s appointment but were folded into his Russia probe, raised questions of how the men were able to carry out their business without consequence for so long, and whether others were similarly evading scrutiny.

The watchdog report concluded that Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents were at odds over the law. Some investigators said prosecutors were slow in reviewing possible cases and reluctant to approve charges. Prosecutors said the law’s main purpose was to ensure proper registration and public disclosure.

The department accepted the recommendations and has been making changes.

For instance, Hickey said, the FARA unit pairs more often with line prosecutors and other parts of the counterintelligence section with experience investigating criminal cases.

Officials say the nine-person FARA unit, which oversees more than 400 active registrants representing more than 600 foreign entities, is also doing more to scrutinize companies whose actions appear to align closely with foreign governments. The aim is to expose whether foreign governments or political figures are using such entities as cut-outs to conceal foreign influence operations that would normally have to register under FARA.

Part of the effort involves eliminating any perception of FARA as a toothless statute.

“It is not the case,” Hickey said, “that FARA is merely or only an administrative or a regulatory matter.”

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