This blog has been covering the export prosecution of Alexander Fishenko for quite some time. Previous posts on this case can be found here and here. Most of my interest has been in the trumped-up Foreign Agents Registration Act charge brought by the government to allow Fishenko to be characterized, inaccurately, as a Russian “spy.”
Fishenko, who pleaded guilty to all counts in the indictment, is scheduled to be sentenced on June 3. The sentencing memorandum prepared by his lawyers provides more insight into the “spy” nonsense and the government’s motivations in bringing these charges. (I am not linking to the memorandum, even though it is publicly available through PACER, because it contains detailed information on some unrelated private matters relating to Fishenko’s medical history.)
As was detailed in the preceding posts, it was undisputed that Fishenko was buying things at the request of the Russian government. But that alone does not make him a foreign agent required to register under FARA. Section 3(d) exempts “private and nonpolitical activities in furtherance of the bona fide trade or commerce of such foreign principal.” There was no allegation or evidence that Fishenko acted for the Russian government in any other capacity, meaning that he was not a “foreign agent” under FARA and, therefore, was under no obligation to register as one.
Apparently, Fishenko was anxious to plead guilty after the indictment, but the government was not willing to take his plea. The hold-up was that Fishenko, although he was willing to plead guilty to all the other charges, did not want to plead guilty to the bogus FARA charge for precisely the reason the government included it: namely, that those charges had been widely, indeed universally, interpreted as charges that he was a Russian spy, something the government well knew and was intentionally using to poison the well. Fishenko thought that such a plea would permanently damage the reputation of his family members.
Leaving aside for the moment that Fishenko’s activities were exempt under section 3(d) of FARA, it is also undeniable that there is a significant difference between being an “unregistered foreign agent” and being a Russian spy. You can be an unregistered foreign agent in violation of FARA even if you run around wearing a banner saying you work for the Russian government, behavior essentially incompatible with being a spy. Nor was Fishenko charged with espionage under the relevant provisions in 18 U.S.C. §§ 793 – 798, something that certainly would have happened if Fishenko was really a Russian spy.
The only conclusion behind the government’s intransigence on the fake FARA charges is that it wants to keep this weapon in its arsenal for future, and equally illegitimate, use. It’s much easier to convict export defendants once they have been branded in the press as spies. Sadly, such behavior — intentionally bringing unfounded charges for their negative publicity value — turns the word “Justice” in the Department of Justice to Orwellian double-speak.