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Paul Manafort Trial Brings Possible Investigation Into Foreign Lobbyists And Lawmakers


The case against Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, began with charges that he violated the law regulating lobbyists working for foreign interests. It's often been ignored or confused with the domestic lobbying law. That may be changing. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In the late 1930s, a little bit like today, America was in high anxiety about the influences of fascists and communists. Politicians responded.


UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIAN: We have proven that fearless exposure followed by vigorous prosecution is the Democratic answer to the fifth column.

OVERBY: And the Foreign Agents Registration Act was passed.

STEPHEN VLADECK: I certainly think that the special counsel has reinvigorated both public awareness and, perhaps, sensitivity to the statute.

OVERBY: Stephen Vladeck teaches at the University of Texas School of Law. He said FARA, as it's known, has a lot more power than even special counsel Robert Mueller is using.

VLADECK: What we're really seeing with, you know, Paul Manafort, with his other cases, are prosecutions for the most preposterously transparent violations of the statute.

OVERBY: And Joe Birkenstock, who practices FARA law in Washington, said the capital city doesn't seem much wiser - people who should know better acting as if FARA isn't any tougher than the law on lobbying for domestic clients.

JOE BIRKENSTOCK: I think you'll see hints of this, even in some of the statements around the case, about people saying, you know, but I never meet with public officials, or, I don't engage in any lobbying.

OVERBY: There used to be a reason for that relaxed attitude. FARA enforcement was weak. Before Manafort, there had been fewer than a dozen prosecutions ever.

It's always been easy to sidestep FARA, for example, to register as a lobbyist for the domestic subsidiary of a foreign corporation instead of for the corporation itself. Lobbyists do that because FARA demands much more information than disclosures under the domestic lobbying law.

JOHN SARBANES: If you're a foreign agent, we want to know everything there is to know about how you're behaving.

OVERBY: Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland is sponsoring new anti-corruption legislation that includes fixes for FARA, including getting rid of that loophole of using the domestic lobbying law instead. Sarbanes is really aiming his bill for action in the next Congress after the midterm elections.

SARBANES: The public is fed up with this. They want to know who's lobbying, who's getting paid to lobby. They want them to register. They definitely want to know if some foreign interest or foreign principal is standing behind that lobby.

OVERBY: Speaking of registering, Joe Birkenstock mostly practices FARA law, but he's also a registered lobbyist for an association of the domestic subsidiaries of foreign companies. But he said he's having lots of wake-up conversations with his law clients.

BIRKENSTOCK: You thought of this as the caboose. You know, theoretically, there could be a FARA issue. But as far as I know, there's no problem there, so why can't we just leave it alone? Well, you know, not good enough.

OVERBY: He said everyone's paying more attention to FARA now - the lobbyists and the Justice Department. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.