By JAKE WIENS
As we noted Tuesday, the Department of Justice's (DOJ) new criminal complaint against Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai and Zaheer Ahmad for allegedly violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is of particular interest to POGO. The case touches on the intersection of two issues POGO has been examining: foreign money in political campaigns and DOJ's enforcement of FARA.
The first issue was explored recently in a timely article in the Huffington Post. The article, by Dan Froomkin, examined how foreign money can find its way into U.S. campaigns. Citing POGO National Security Fellow Ben Freeman, the article noted that “There's pretty clear evidence that foreign money is being used, at least indirectly, to finance U.S. elections.”
DOJ’s highly detailed criminal complaint against Fai and Ahmad appears to illustrate how a foreign country—in this case Pakistan—can use sophisticated means to insert foreign money into the U.S. political process. The complaint alleges that a foundation run by Fai—the Kashmiri American Council (KAC)—was covertly directed and financed by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Through a network of straw donors, Fai was able to covertly collect and disperse money from the ISI, some of which was used to help fund the campaigns of U.S. politicians, according to the complaint based on an FBI agent’s sworn testimony.
Federal Election Commission records show that Fai contributed more to Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) than to any other Member of Congress. However, DOJ noted that there is no evidence that any Member of Congress accepted donations with the knowledge that they originated from the ISI.
But a previous exchange between a lobbyist working for Pakistan and Representative Burton, as recounted in a 1997 article in The Washington Post, illustrates the blurred relationship between lawful and unlawful donations from lobbyists working for foreign governments.
According to the article, Mark Siegel, then a lobbyist for Pakistan, claimed that Burton approached him about raising “at least $5,000” for his reelection campaign. After Burton failed to come up with the funds, according to interviews conducted by the Post, Burton complained to the Pakistani Ambassador and threatened that “‘none of his friends or colleagues’ would meet with Siegel or his associates.”
The relationship between lobbyists working for foreign countries and donations to Members of Congress was the subject of a recent POGO letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. The letter requested that Holder investigate donations to Members of Congress from lobbyists working for the Republic of Kazakhstan. Initial evidence that Kazakhstan may have unlawfully funded Members of Congress arose from purported correspondence between the president of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhstan Ambassador to the U.S that was filed in U.S. District Court as part of an ongoing lawsuit.
“There's pretty clear evidence that foreign money is being used, at least indirectly, to finance U.S. elections.”
-- POGO National Security Fellow Ben Freeman to HuffPo's Dan Froomkin
The correspondence, which was obtained by the president’s ex-son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, has been called a forgery by officials from Kazakhstan. The correspondence suggested that the Embassy had created a congressional caucus dedicated to supporting its interests and was funding members of that caucus through a “special foreign currency fund.”
POGO’s analysis showed that a lobbying firm, Policy Impact Communications, was indeed hired by the Kazakhstan Embassy to help create a caucus—the Caucus on Central Asia—and employees of that same lobbying firm personally donated thousands of dollars to the leadership of that caucus.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, William H. Nixon, the CEO of Policy Impact Communications and a donor to the Caucus on Central Asia co-chair, Eni Faleomavaega, acknowledged the important role of money in politics but discounted the notion that his donations to Faleomavaega were in any way tied to Kazakhstan. He also noted that the amount of money he donated would not have been sufficient to “own” a politician:
As for the delegate from Samoa: "The fact is Congressman Faleomavaega has been a dear friend of mine for years and years," Nixon says. "And the relationship he had—independent of me—with Kazakhstan had nothing to do with the donation I made to the campaign."
Nixon says that he had stopped representing Kazakhstan by the time of the donation.
"There's no question that when you are in this industry, that you support your friends and allies with whom you've had association for many years. But that support never comes—at least from my perspective—it never comes with any expectation of favoritism or quid pro quo," he says.
"Obviously, money is the mother's milk of politics and it's a constant effort these senators and congressmen need to make to support their political campaigns," Nixon says.
But he laughs off the notion that governments are trying to buy off members of Congress with the kinds of campaign contributions lobbyists are making. "The contribution to the elected officials frankly is de minimus," he says—in other words, small change.
"The idea that you could own a politician for 2,000 bucks? Maybe they've got their price," he says, chuckling, "but it's not 2,000 bucks."
But what Nixon does not mention, however, is that in the case of Faleomavaega, a few thousand dollars is actually a fair amount of money. In fact, the combined $4,800 dollars in contributions made by Nixon and his wife Tamera make his firm Faleomavaega’s second largest organizational donor in the 2010 election cycle. Of course, as we noted in our letter, the donations do not prove that Kazakhstan funneled money through the lobbyists, but considering the leaked correspondence obtained by Aliyev, they certainly raise questions.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear if this indictment shows that the DOJ is taking FARA enforcement more seriously. The investigation into Fai and Ahmad involved informants and intercepted electronic communications and had been going on since 2005, which demonstrates that a lot of resources were put into this case.
In most cases, DOJ only prosecutes under FARA for “willful noncompliance.” In other words, if an agent of foreign principal is informed that they should register yet they refuse, only then are they subject to prosecution. Citing a law enforcement official, ProPublica noted that prosecutions “don't happen very often. The government generally works to get someone into compliance rather than charging.” In this case, it appears that DOJ repeatedly asked Fai to file under FARA and he refused.
But it is clear that FARA has garnered a fair amount of attention in recent years. Somewhat reminiscent of the current case involving Pakistani-Americans and Pakistan's intelligence service, the relatively obscure statute made news last year following the arrest of ten suspected Russian spies on charges that they were operating in violation of FARA. As POGO's Nick Schwellenbach pointed out at the time, "some speculate that U.S. prosecutors charged the Russians with failure to register—rather than the more difficult-to-prove charge of espionage—because the government lacks evidence that the Russians transmitted sensitive information."
But suspected spies are just one slice of FARA. More recently, FARA made headlines following disclosures that a number of private firms performed undisclosed public relations work for Libya. One of those firms, the Monitor Group, retroactively filed disclosures following a public outcry caused by the leak of some its plans by a Libyan opposition group. And more recently, a firm called Brown Lloyd James made news for its own disclosures under FARA that it helped boost the public image of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi while working for an oil executive with business interests in the country.
The attention garnered by those disclosures made under FARA illustrate how effective a statute simply requiring disclosure can be. We can only hope that DOJ has realized that enforcing FARA can help clean up our politics by ensuring that activities to influence the political process are conducted in the full light of transparency.
Jake Wiens is a POGO Investigator.