An Audit of the Justice Department’s FARA Program: Increased focus on registration likely, but what about criminal prosecutions?

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.

California Cracking Down on Lobbyist Registrations

United States and California flagsThe Fair Political Practices Commission – the agency responsible for administering and enforcing California’s campaign finance and lobbying laws – has unanimously approved a rule change intended to force more consultants to register as lobbyists and strengthen the agency’s hand in enforcing state lobbying laws. The rule will take effect September 16, 2016.

FPPC chair Jodi Remke has called this the “first step” in cracking down on “shadow lobbying,” and has indicated that the agency intends to focus on lobbying compliance in the coming year.

California lobbying law recognizes two types of lobbyists: in-house lobbyists, who lobby on behalf of their employer, and contract lobbyists, who lobby for a client. This change affects only contract lobbyists.

Continue Reading

New York’s Campaign Finance and Lobbying Reforms Become Law

new-york-1590175_640New York Governor Andrew Cuomo finally signed his administration’s signature political law reform bill last week, on August 24, 2016. The bill passed out of the New York legislature earlier this year and will have a significant impact on state-level Super PACs, nonprofit organizations involved in lobbying efforts in New York, and political consultants, in particular.

The bill’s provisions affecting Super PACs will be effective 30 days after the signature date, meaning that the new law will now be in place for the November general elections and many of the new lobbying-related disclosures will take effect before the next legislative session. It remains to be seen, though, how quickly the New York state agencies tasked with enforcing and implementing the new law will develop the forms for the registrations and reporting now required under the law for New York Super PACs, political consultants, and nonprofit organizations.

Interestingly, before it was signed, the bill drew criticism over the donor disclosure requirements that it imposes on nonprofit organizations such as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(3) charities that are engaged in lobbying and other issue advocacy in New York. These provisions could be the subject of a lawsuit on constitutional grounds, which would further delay their impact.

For more details on the major changes under the new law, please see our earlier coverage of the bill.

 

 

 

When the Convention Parties Are Over: How Public Charities Can Be Involved in the 2016 Elections and Talk about the Issues

Many issues important to public charities are addressed in the platforms adopted by the political parties. As Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties wrap up their conventions and the Green Party meets this week, charities are asking how they can talk about the issues raised in the platforms. Charities can advance their position on the issues that they had been advocating before the platforms were adopted; however, they should consider carefully whether to opine specifically on the positions of candidates and the political parties.

Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code strictly prohibits all charities from engaging in activities to support or oppose candidates for public office. However, public charities, in particular, can advance public policy goals—many involving specific legislative solutions that are in the platforms.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and, ultimately, the courts evaluate whether a charity improperly engages in candidate campaigns by considering the context. Could the charity’s statements about policy and candidates or political parties reasonably lead an audience to believe the organization has an opinion on the candidate or party? Facts and circumstances are considered in the context of the statement and the issue.

In considering the statement:

  • Does it identify one or more candidates or parties or express approval or disapproval for positions of a political party platform or candidate?
  • Is it delivered close in time to the election or make reference to voting or the election?
  • Is the timing of the statement instead linked to a specific legislative action by an officeholder who happens to be a candidate?

In considering the issue addressed in the statement:

  • Has the position on the issue been raised to distinguish between parties or candidates?
  • Is the issue part of an ongoing series of communications by the charity on the same issue without regard to the election?

There is a safe zone for a charity that has previously advocated for a policy position that later becomes a political party platform issue or the subject of a candidate’s position.

A charity can:

  • Use earned and paid media to advocate for the charity’s position on an issue;
  • Call for all candidates and parties to support the charity’s position without calling out particular parties or candidates or mentioning the positions they’ve already taken;
  • Send materials to all candidates and party leaders to educate them about the charity’s issues;
  • Invite all candidates in a race to meet with charity leaders to discuss the issue and visit the charity’s facilities or work projects; and
  • Ask its members or the public to educate all candidates on the charity’s issues.

Charities should take care when:

  • Inviting a current officeholder who is also a candidate to a public event of the charity;
  • Naming an officeholder in paid advertising who is up for election, because of federal and state election laws that regulate campaign speech and may be triggered, requiring disclosure and other requirements close in time to the election;
  • Holding panel discussions or debates with candidates; or
  • Providing an “open forum” on social media about issues without careful monitoring or control of comments posted.

Charities should avoid:

  • Publicizing the positions of political parties and candidates on issues on which the charity has taken a position; and
  • Holding debates or developing voter guides limited to a small set of issues, such as environmental topics, on which the charity has taken a position.

Planning and Executing Activities Involving the Candidates, Parties, and Their Positions

Many activities—such as debates, voter guides, and voter registration—can also be considered by a charity on a broad range of issues of interest to the public. The key is to remember that these activities must be nonpartisan, and not favor one candidate over another. In addition, charities should consider their underlying mission and determine whether activities like general voter education are reasonably part of the chartered purpose of the charity.

Unfortunately, the line between prohibited and permissible activities for a 501(c)(3) organization is murky and can easily be crossed if not properly managed. Careful planning, clear communication about the limitations of all involved, and control in executing the activity are critical. Now might be a good time to review the rules that will help your charity stay on the right side of the line while involved in the process.

If done correctly, 501(c)(3) organizations can:

  • Help register voters;
  • Conduct get-out-the-vote activities;
  • Publish voter guides on a broad range of issues of interest to the public;
  • Create candidate questionnaires on a broad range of issues of interest to the public;
  • Host candidate appearances that are not debates;
  • Host debates on a broad range of issues of interest to the public;
  • Conduct issue advocacy;
  • Allow leadership and staff (on their own time) to be politically active; and
  • Create an affiliated organization to engage in political activities that they cannot.

Continue reading for more information on prohibited intervention and permissible activities.

A Tale of Two Vice Presidents: Pay-to-Play and the Running Mates

dollar signIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For investment advisers and others subject to the pay-to-play rules, that is. Although both vice presidential picks have gubernatorial experience, because Mike Pence is a sitting governor and Tim Kaine is a former governor, there are certain pay-to-play rules that apply to contributions to Trump/Pence that do not apply to Clinton/Kaine. Thus, the Pence pick has important implications for many companies and firms engaged in the financial services industry.

As reported by various news outlets, Governor Pence’s role with the Indiana Public Retirement System subjects contributions to the Trump/Pence ticket to the SEC’s and other pay-to-play rules. Violations of these rules can carry significant penalties. And the shadow of the pay-to-play fundraising restrictions has even caused some to speculate that Pence should resign as governor.

Continue Reading

Copyright Tips for Political Campaigns and Their Consultants

No CopyrightsWhat do the campaigns of Sarah Palin, John McCain, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul, Ralph Nader, Ronald Reagan, Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney all have in common? They have all faced claims of copyright infringement for their use of music or other works of art.

Candidates—and outside groups supporting or opposing them—often do not pay much attention to the copyright laws that apply to their activities, and sometimes use other people’s copyrighted works without obtaining the necessary licenses. For example, candidates use popular songs at rallies and campaign events and in YouTube videos and other online advertisements, without getting the required consent or license from the musician, songwriter, or performing rights societies. And sometimes they will use photographs or artwork and incorporate them into TV ads, digital ads, mailers, and emails, without obtaining, or making sure their contractors have obtained, the necessary permissions, consents, or licenses from the artists whose work they are using.

Continue Reading

The FEC Levels Fines on Nonprofits over Donor Disclosure

The question of when a politically-active, nonprofit 501(c)(4) group must publicly disclose its donors has been on the front burner in various states—most, like New York and California, have called for greater regulation, while others like Arizona have loosened the reins. At the federal level, silence has been the norm because the statute is generally read as only requiring disclosure by a 501(c)(4) (or other nonprofit such as a 501(c)(6)) if a donor contributes for the purposes of funding a particular ad. The FEC has consistently deadlocked on complaints alleging either that a donor gave for the purpose of supporting an ad or that a 501(c)(4) should be treated as a political committee and disclose all of its donors.

Last week, however, details were released from an FEC enforcement matter that met this stringent test and, as a result, the Commission levied fines totaling $233,000 against three nonprofit groups for failing to identify donors behind specific advertisements. These three settlement agreements, released as a group, provide significant guidance to nonprofit 501(c)(4)s and other actors as to what type of conduct will trigger donor disclosure at the federal level.

Continue Reading

New Mandatory IRS Notification Process for 501(c)(4) Nonprofit Organizations Finally Announced

tax forms and notesA substantial number of organizations exempt under Internal Revenue Code (Code) § 501(c)(4), and their individual officers and directors, may be subject to financial penalties if they do not file a Form 8976, Notice of Intent to Operate Under Section 501(c)(4), with the Internal Revenue Service (Service or IRS) on or before September 6, 2016.

On July 8, 2016 the IRS released a revenue procedure for implementing new statutory requirements for certain organizations that operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This requirement comes on the heels of the December 2015 enactment of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015.

The recently released Revenue Procedure 2016-41 contains temporary regulations implementing the 501(c)(4) provisions of the PATH Act and describes the new Form 8976 and the related rules for filing it.

Continue Reading

Revisions to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Guidance: What These Changes Mean for You

The Lobbying Disclosure Act Guidance (Guidance) issued by the Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate was updated on June 15. The updates clarify currently existing provisions of the LDA, add additional examples, replace references to the LDA with hyperlinked citations to the U.S. Code, and remove references to Line numbers (the online reporting platform does not have Line numbers for drafting reports, but the final version of the reports available on the House and Senate websites still have Line numbers).  The Guidance is available here. A brief discussion of the changes to the Guidance is below:

Continue Reading

New York Imposes New Rules on Super PACs, Advocacy Groups, and Political Consultants

Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he and legislators in the New York State Assembly had agreed on a “5 Point Ethics Reform Plan,” a sweeping proposal to create substantial changes in New York campaign finance law. The reform bill passed out of the legislature in mid-June and is expected to be signed by the governor any day.

Most of the significant changes will become effective 30 days after the governor signs the bill into law, meaning those preparing to get involved in New York state elections this fall will need to become familiar with the new requirements quickly. The changes are particularly important for entities considering making independent expenditures in those elections, as the bill creates a new definition for an “independent expenditure committee” and adds more detail to New York’s definition of “coordination.” Nonprofit organizations exempt from federal income tax under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(4) are also targets for further disclosure obligations under this new law. Finally, the bill includes specific registration and reporting requirements for “political consultants” – the first-ever provision of its kind in New York law – which may impact many consultants and other service providers active in the political arena.

Continue Reading

LexBlog