Lobbying for tyranny

Two big Washington lobbying shops helped Manafort try to make Ukraine a Russian puppet state. Neither registered as a foreign agent. Was that legal?

So it turns out that two major Washington lobbying outfits were involved with Paul Manafort’s attempt to turn Ukraine into a Russian puppet state. In good bipartisan fashion, one was Democratic (the Podesta Group, headed by the brother of the Clinton campaign manager) and the other Republican (Mercury, featuring Vin Weber). Even assuming that what they did was legal, it was morally disgusting.

What Manafort did was almost certainly illegal. He recruited Podesta and Weber as lobbyists. While the actual checks to them came from a sketchy-Brussels-base NGO called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, Manfort was working directly for the Party of Regions (indirectly, of course, for the Kremlin). If he was arranging for lobbyists, then he was acting as an “agent of a foreign principal” and should have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

But both the Podesta Group and Mercury insist that they had no idea who they were really working for, and that as lobbyists for an NGO rather than a foreign government or political party they didn’t have to register. Apparently they had legal advice to that effect, and maybe that advice was sound.

However, that advice does not seem (to my unlawyerly eye) to track the actual text of the statute. FARA defines a “foreign principal” to include:

a partnership, association, corporation, organization, or other combination of persons organized under the laws of or having its principal place of business in a foreign country.

There’s no exclusion for NGOs.

An “agent of a foreign principal” is one who:

(i) engages within the United States in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal;
(ii) acts within the United States as a public relations counsel, publicity agent, information-service employee or political consultant for or in the interests of such foreign principal;
(iii) within the United States solicits, collects, disburses, or dispenses contributions, loans, money, or other things of value for or in the interest of such foreign principal; or
(iv) within the United States represents the interests of such foreign principal before any agency or official of the Government of the United States

So unless there’s an NGO exemption hidden somewhere in the caselaw, it’s hard to see how either Podesta or Mercury didn’t break the law by acting as agents of a foreign principal without registering.
If not, the law needs changing, given how easy it is to set up a front-group NGO.
And while we’re at it, someone better start paying attention to the way that Citizens United allows foreign corporations (or just foreign oligarchs) to set up U.S. subsidiaries or firms that are then free to engage in “political speech” without anyone knowing who’s calling the shots.