Blumenthal, Durbin, & Duckworth Introduce Legislation to Strengthen Enforcement of Foreign Lobbying Transparency Law

Legislation would create penalties for foreign agents who break the law like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn & Jack Abramoff

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced legislation today to strengthen registration requirements for foreign government lobbyists and to crack down on foreign agents who fail to comply with the law. The Foreign Agent Lobbying Transparency Enforcement Act would give the Department of Justice (DOJ) the ability to impose civil financial penalties on lobbyists who fail to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA). This transparency law requires individuals to promptly register with DOJ when they take on clients who are foreign governments or political parties and to periodically disclose information on their foreign lobbying activities. Currently, DOJ attempts to enforce FARA through voluntary compliance and this lax enforcement has resulted in a status quo where individuals representing foreign governments regularly violate this law. For example, FARA requires lobbyists register as foreign agents within 10 days of agreeing to represent a foreign principal but—because the law is difficult to effectively enforce—62% of foreign agents registered late and 47% did not provide the required disclosure materials between 2013 and 2015. 

“Congress must takes steps now to protect against the kind of dangerous conflicts of interest that have run rampant in the Trump Administration,” said Blumenthal. “The American people deserve to know about deep-rooted, deep-pocketed dealings between American citizens and foreign governments – and they deserve to make their own judgements about foreign lobbyists like Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn before they have the chance to influence U.S. government policy. This bill will ensure potentially criminal connections between government officials and foreign agents are revealed long before they endanger our national security.”

“While the Foreign Agents Registration Act requires agents of foreign governments to disclose their relationships, a 2016 report found that violations of FARA were frequent and enforcement was lacking. With the high profile violations of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s campaign manager, and Michael Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, it is clear that reforms to FARA are needed now more than ever,” said Durbin. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation with Senators Duckworth and Blumenthal to improve compliance with FARA and increase transparency of foreign lobbying activities for the American people.”

“When lobbyists hide their relationships with foreign governments, it is not just a conflict of interest – it is dangerous to our national security,” said Duckworth. “The American people had no idea when Michael Flynn became President Trump’s National Security Advisor that he had been paid a significant amount of money to further the interests of the Turkish and Russian governments – and they did not know Paul Manafort had been paid tens of millions of dollars by a Kremlin-connected Ukrainian political party when he became Donald Trump’s campaign chairman. These former Trump staffers, like countless other lobbyists, failed to disclose their status as foreign agents and they should face the consequences instead of being allowed to continue to operate with impunity.” 

In recent months, there have been a number of high profile examples of foreign government lobbyists failing to follow the law. Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff all retroactively registered as lobbyists for foreign governments after media reports exposed their activities.

The DOJ rarely pursues criminal prosecutions because the amount of resources that would be required to conduct a criminal investigation and secure a conviction is prohibitively high. As a result, DOJ has only pursued criminal charges against FARA violators 7 times. It has not sought a civil injunction for a FARA violation since 1991. As the DOJ Inspector General told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Congress needs to put “some teeth into the statue.” The Senators’ legislation would do just that by giving DOJ a greater ability to levy civil fines to punish those who file late or fail to register as foreign agents – as well as the discretion to adjust the penalty based on the severity and frequency of the infraction.

In addition to strengthening FARA enforcement, the Senators’ legislation would increase transparency by improving the quality of foreign lobbying disclosures filed with DOJ. Currently, foreign agents only have to disclose lobbying materials they sent to multiple recipients, allowing them to hide individual meetings and communications even if they are with an influential policymaker or a Member of Congress. The Foreign Agent Lobbying Transparency Enforcement Act would close this loophole. It would also make sure that foreign agents disclose the specific recipients of their foreign lobbying materials, and the original date of distribution of the materials. This information will empower DOJ to better enforce FARA’s timeliness requirements for disclosing foreign lobbying activities, while providing the American public with transparency into how foreign governments are attempting to influence U.S. policymakers. The legislation has been endorsed by the Project on Government Oversight.

“This legislation is an important step forward in strengthening this vital transparency law. It is our hope that the Justice Department will be able to improve FARA compliance and enforcement rates and that the public and Congress will gain a better understanding of how foreign powers attempt to influence US public opinion and policy,” said Project on Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian.

More information on the Foreign Agent Lobbying Transparency Enforcement Act is available here.