- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Justice Department says it has no record that it told a GOP lobbyist accused of influence-peddling he did not have to register his activities arranging visits to the United States by Central Asian politicians and meetings for them with Bush administration officials.

A government transparency watchdog called Friday for the department to launch an inquiry.

The lobbyist, Stephen Payne, was asked to resign this week from a Department of Homeland Security advisory panel after he was surreptitiously videotaped by the London Sunday Times. In excerpts of the tape posted by the newspaper, Mr. Payne offers to arrange meetings for an exiled former president of Kazakhstan with senior U.S. administration officials in return for a six-figure fee, including a quarter-million-dollar donation to the $200 million fundraising effort for the Bush presidential library and museum.

Mr. Payne, who said he was entrapped by the paper and had done nothing wrong, told United Press International earlier this week that his company, Houston-based Worldwide Strategic Partners Inc., did not have to register as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, since the work was on behalf of commercial entities, not governments.

“I believe that we are in compliance with FARA regulations,” Mr. Payne wrote in an e-mail. “We did not need to FARA register as the basis for our work was commercial projects in these countries. We checked with the Department of Justice’s FARA division and were informed that we did not need to register for these commercial projects.”

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd told UPI the department had seen the report, but had no record of any such advice being sought or given.

He said the FARA Unit “at times receives specific inquiries from the public seeking formal legal opinions, known as ‘Rule 2’ opinions, as to whether legal exemptions may apply to certain activities,” he said. Such “formal, written legal opinion(s)” were produced after a thorough review process in which the requester had to provide details of the planned activities.

“A preliminary search of our records,” Mr. Boyd said, “indicates that the Justice Department’s FARA Unit has issued no written, legal opinion to Worldwide Strategic Partners or to Mr. Payne concerning the activities of Worldwide Strategic Partners.”

In addition, he said, the FARA Unit also gave advice over the phone to the members of the public concerning “general information” on the law. “We continue to search our records to determine whether or not there have ever been any verbal communications between the FARA Unit and Mr. Payne.”

Mr. Payne is already facing an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Democratic bulldog Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California.

Promotional materials Mr. Payne provided to an undercover reporter and the Kazakh middleman who set him up touted his work for several Central Asian politicians, including the president of Azerbaijan, and an Uzbek opposition leader.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - a government transparency watchdog - called Friday for the department to look into the apparent violation, which is a felony under the act.

“It is quite clear this work should have been registered,” the group´s Executive Director Melanie Sloan told UPI. “The Justice Department should launch an immediate investigation.”

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