The Department of Justice Inspector General’s (IG) office recently released a highly critical audit of DOJ’s Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA) enforcement program. The audit, combined with recent news stories potentially involving FARA, may foreshadow an increased awareness of this sometimes overlooked registration requirement. But increased attention likely does not mean an increase in prosecutions, at least based on DOJ’s initial response to the audit.

Background on FARA

FARA is a federal criminal statute requiring certain persons acting on behalf of foreign principals to register and file periodic reports with the Department of Justice. The law requires any agent of a foreign principal to register with DOJ within ten days of engaging in political or quasi-political activities. These include activities such as lobbying, public relations, and direct or indirect political activities. FARA also requires foreign agents to file copies of informational material disseminated on behalf of a foreign principal to two or more persons with DOJ within 48 hours of their dissemination.

Persons required to register must provide DOJ with information on the nature of their relationship with the foreign principal, the work to be performed for the foreign principal, and, on a semi-annual basis, a report of the activities performed on behalf of the foreign principal and funds received from, or disbursed on behalf of, the foreign principal. Penalties for failing to comply with FARA can include a fine of $10,000 or imprisonment for up to five years.

Key points from the audit

The IG’s audit was especially critical of DOJ’s failure to prosecute FARA cases. In particular, the audit focused on the high proportion of new registrants who fail to file within the required ten-day period. In its review, the audit found that only 23% of new registrants filed timely registrations. In addition, materials disseminated on behalf of foreign principals were filed within the required period only 39% of the time, and almost half lacked a proper disclaimer (explaining that the agent is disseminating the information on behalf of a foreign principal).

The IG audit called on DOJ to improve its controls and oversight of FARA registration. Does this mean that a crackdown is in the works? Probably not. In response to the IG’s findings, DOJ pointed to several reasons why stricter enforcement is neither likely nor warranted:

  1. There is no penalty for late filings;
  2. At least half of the filings that were considered late (beyond ten days) were filed within 30 days (it appears even DOJ has a grace period); and
  3. According to DOJ, “the primary means of achieving FARA’s main purpose of transparency is through voluntary disclosure in compliance with the Act.”

Takeaways

Criminal enforcement of FARA, except in the case of a willful violation, will probably continue to be rare. However, DOJ appears to be developing tools to monitor more effectively whether the public is complying with FARA. For example, DOJ is expanding its efforts to identify potentially non-compliant registrants. The Audit confirmed that DOJ had limited itself to web searches or research on LexisNexis, but that it now is reaching out to other government agencies to obtain information about potential non-filers. DOJ also indicated that it will seek to make its FARA advisory opinions available to the public, perhaps as early as March 2017. These opinions will provide further insight into how DOJ is approaching FARA registration.

With renewed focus on FARA, and DOJ’s indication it will expand its voluntary compliance efforts, we expect to see an uptick in the FARA Registration Unit’s activities, including more letters to violators seeking voluntary compliance.

The best way to avoid being caught in a Justice Department audit is by taking FARA seriously and implementing a compliance program. Here are three best practices:

  1. Know who pays your bills — FARA covers direct and indirect activity by foreign principals, so be sure to perform adequate due diligence before you engage in political or quasi-political activity.
  2. Take advantage of the Lobbying Disclosure Act exemption — If you lobby on behalf of a foreign private sector principal and are registered under the LDA, you are exempt from FARA requirements. Not only are the registration and reporting requirements under the LDA easier to comply with, it’s also cheaper to register under the LDA (no fee) compared with FARA ($305 for each foreign principal). Note that this exemption does not apply to agents of a foreign government (or a foreign government-controlled entity) or to a foreign political party.
  3. Seek guidance — For now, DOJ’s FARA advisory opinions are not readily accessible, and the law is arcane and unclear in many respects. To avoid getting into hot water, seek legal guidance on the front end of your engagements with foreign principals or foreign-controlled entities.