How much influence do foreign governments exert on U.S. law? It could be more than you think. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) looked at thousands of documents stretching out over four years and has put together a report on its findings.

The organization has also compiled a database to make it easier to access public records related to lobbying on behalf of foreign interests.

Foreign interests – Nothing but a joke?

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is supposed to enable journalists and the public to track political activity by foreign interests. However, POGO says the law suffers from “lax enforcement, shoddy record keeping, glaring loopholes and in many cases outright disregard by the firms hired to lobby on behalf of foreign entities.”

“Enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act is, to put it bluntly, a running joke,” said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian in a statement. “The Justice Department hasn’t shown much of an interest in holding lobbyists accountable for flouting the law.”

Foreign Interests

Fishy same-day campaign contributions

One of POGO’s key findings in its review of thousands of documents is related to the timing of campaign contributions made by lobbying firms. Among the documents reviewed by POGO are emails between lobbyists who work for foreign interests as they communicate with foreign interests. Federal laws are supposed to keep foreign money away from political campaigns in the U.S., but that may not be happening.

POGO said it found “many instances” in which some lobbying firms just happened to make political contributions to members of Congress the same day they lobbied those lawmakers on behalf of a foreign client. The Moffett Group, a government relations and strategic consulting firm in Washington, told POGO that there are indeed some questionable things going on behind the scenes.

“Around the edges there’s a lot of loosey-goosey stuff going on,” Moffett Group Chairman Toby Moffett told POGO. “People representing foreign interests and not reporting.”

Some questionable timing

The organization offered a number of specific examples. For example, The Livingston Group reportedly made a contribution to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California on the same day it met with Rohrabacher and other lawmakers to talk about relations between the U.S. and Libya in 2008. POGO reports that this was the only time that year Livingston contributed to the lawmaker’s campaign and the first time in 2008 that Livingston contacted Rohrabacher to lobby for any foreign client.

In another case, a DLA Piper lobbyist reportedly contributed donations to lawmakers the same day she met with them to talk about the agenda of the United Arab Emirates. And the list goes on and on. However, those involved told POGO that the timing of the lobbying contacts and the campaign contributions are coincidental rather than a form of quid pro quo.

“Most of the Congressman’s [Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi] DC fundraisers—like those of all Members—invariably occur on days when Congress is in session, which is also when most meetings take place,” a spokesperson for Rep. Thompson told POGO.

Similar comments were made by spokespeople for other lawmakers as well. Others said they didn’t remember meeting with the lobbyists in question and didn’t know they had made a campaign contribution.

Foreign Interests

POGO makes recommendations

POGO also offered some suggestions on how Washington can improve oversight of FARA, like by having the Dept. of Justice conduct more audits. The organization would also like to see better transparency. Also it suggests that the DoJ be given the authority to levy civil fines on some lobbying firms and require lobbying firms to file more information than they are currently required to file.

Other suggestions include requiring lobbying firms to file their informational materials electronically “to eliminate any possible confusion regarding the date of filing.” Electronic filing would also make all of the documents more readily available for anyone who wishes to investigate.