Senators aim to add teeth to law used in Mueller's Russia probe

Bill Allison, Bloomberg News on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators is trying to put more teeth into a law that became a staple of former special counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutions.

Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, introduced a bill to give the Justice Department more powers to investigate and punish lobbying and public relations firms that represent foreign governments, political parties and other entities without disclosing their activities.

The measure would add provisions to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, a rarely enforced 1938 law that requires agents of foreign clients to file detailed reports with the Justice Department on their efforts to influence U.S. policy or public opinion on their behalf. Several of the key figures in Mueller's investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the campaign of President Donald Trump were found to have violated FARA.

"If lobbyists or public relations firms are peddling policy preferences at the behest of foreign powers, we ought to know about it," Grassley said in a statement, adding that he had been concerned about how the Justice Department enforced FARA well before Mueller's investigation.

Grassley's bill, co-sponsored by Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republicans John Cornyn of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Todd Young of Indiana, gives the Justice Department the authority to compel information from people suspected of violating FARA. Under current law, the department has to seek voluntary compliance from those it believes are violating the act.

The measure would also increase the penalties for breaking the law, including raising fines to as much as $200,000 for willful false statements. It also adds civil fines of $10,000 for failing to file timely registration statements. Under the act, foreign agents must register with the Justice Department within 10 days of agreeing to represent a foreign client and before acting on their behalf.

The five-year maximum sentence for criminally violating FARA would remain unchanged.

Grassley and other members of Congress have long been critical of how the Justice Department administers the act, and the department's inspector general found in a 2016 report that there was no comprehensive strategy to enforce it. Since FARA was last updated in 1966, there have been just 15 prosecutions under the law, seven of which were brought as a result of Mueller's investigation.

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Mueller found that Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager, had lobbied for the Party of Regions, a Ukrainian political party that backed closer ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, without registering under FARA. His firm was paid $17.1 million for the work, disclosures he filed retroactively with the government showed.

Manafort was convicted on charges that included tax and bank fraud, as well as conspiring to engage in illegal foreign lobbying.

Sam Patten, who worked with Manafort in Europe, also pleaded guilty to violating FARA. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn retroactively registered for work he had done in 2016 that benefited the government of Turkey, though he wasn't charged with violating the law.

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