- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Russian government-funded broadcaster RT is expected to comply with a Justice Department request to register as a foreign agent by Monday, and legal analysts say it’s a signal that U.S. authorities are getting serious about enforcing laws requiring disclosures from individuals who work on behalf of foreign governments.

The U.S. is cracking down amid outrage over the Kremlin’s meddling in the presidential election last year.

The Justice Department’s inspector general noted last year the infrequency with which criminal charges are brought over Foreign Agents Registration Act violations. But tougher enforcement is anticipated after the RT registration request, coupled with the criminal indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his top deputy, Richard Gates, on charges including failure to register as foreign agents.

“For the industry, lobbying firms and many public relations firms, there is a general sense of unease and an expectation that the FARA unit will become more aggressive,” said Josh Rosenstein, a lawyer with Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein & Birkenstock who specializes in FARA registrations. “In my practice, we have seen in the wake of the indictments a number of clients who have come to us to re-examine prior filings to make sure all the i’s were dotted or t’s were crossed.”

New businesses have also reached out to ask whether they should be registered, Mr. Rosenstein said, including K Street lobbying firms and public relations and media relations companies.

“The conventional wisdom was it was a lobbying law, but it’s not. It’s much more broad,” he said.

The Justice Department has not commented on or confirmed any correspondence with RT about the FARA registration deadline. But RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan has said the company was told it risked the seizure of its U.S. bank accounts and the arrest of a senior editor if it failed to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act by Monday.

The Russian cable news station has objected to the request, which Ms. Simonyan said was made in September, calling it discriminative and threatening to fight the action in court. The company has not made public the request letter it said it received from the Justice Department’s FARA registration unit.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has indicated that the move will create blowback for American media in Russia, though authorities have not said exactly what form any retaliation might take.

Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in on the matter over the weekend at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam.

“An attack on our media is an attack on freedom of speech,” Mr. Putin said, according to Radio Free Europe. “They went the route of de-facto closure [of RT]. There will be a proper tit-for-tat response.”

Currently, 407 entities are registered as foreign agents with the Justice Department. Media outlets that have registered include Japan’s NHK TV news channel, the China Daily newspaper and China’s Xinmin Evening News.

Under the FARA laws, anyone who is employed as an agent of a foreign principal, such as a foreign government or foreign political party, and works to engage in political activities in the U.S. is required to register with the Justice Department. Entities that register are not blocked from engaging in any activities, but the registrations provide transparency about their funding sources.

Failure to comply with FARA laws can lead to civil or criminal penalties, though enforcement has been notably lax in recent years.

FARA enforcement relies heavily on voluntary compliance, as Justice Department staff within the registration unit do not have the authority to compel private companies to disclose their financial information. As a result, the unit often gets involved after public media reports raise questions about a company’s work for a foreign government.

The Justice Department’s office of inspector general noted in a report last year that the agency brought only seven criminal FARA cases from 1966 to 2015, and it hasn’t sought civil injunctive relief in a case since 1991.

But Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the election has brought renewed attention to the law. Mr. Mueller’s team charged Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates with failure to disclose their work on behalf of a Ukrainian political party.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, introduced a bill to toughen foreign lobbying oversight. The proposal would give the FARA unit the authority to demand that companies and individuals provide documents or testimony to ensure they are compliant with the law.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen time and again how lobbyists of foreign principals skirt existing disclosure laws to conceal their clients’ identities and agendas,” said Mr. Grassley, announcing the proposal the day after Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates were indicted. “This bill seeks to correct those flaws by improving enforcement, compliance and oversight of FARA.”

After Mr. Manafort was indicted last month, his attorney highlighted the infrequency with which prosecutors have filed criminal charges against individuals for failure to register as foreign agents. The attorney said Mr. Mueller’s team “is using a very novel theory to prosecute Mr. Manafort regarding a FARA filing.”

Amid scrutiny of his firm’s ties to Ukraine and the Ukrainian political party, the Party of Regions, Mr. Manafort retroactively filed a FARA registration this year. The disclosure showed that he had been paid $17.1 million over two years from the political party to influence U.S. policy on Ukraine.

Michael Flynn, the former White House national security adviser, also filed a retroactive registration this year that disclosed his work on behalf of a Turkish businessman. Mr. Flynn’s consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, received $530,000 from Inovo BV, a company owned by businessmen Ekim Alptekin, for work that “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey,” according to his filing.

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