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Ukraine lobbying exposes holes in foreign agent registration

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Munich, Germany, on February 4, 2012. (Photo credit: State Department.)

Ukraine's embattled rulers may have a clique of connected lobbyists swarming Congress, the State Department or even the White House pleading the case of President Viktor Yanukovich, whose tilt toward Vladimir Putin's Russia has launched three months of protests. But because of a change to disclosure requirements for agents of foreign powers, the public may never know.

Citing the work of Ukrainian investigative journalist Sergil Leschenko and Reuters, the Daily Beast reported that the European Center for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU) — a Brussels-based nonprofit founded by members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions — hired the Podesta Group and the International Government Relations Group to lobby in Washington on U.S.-Ukraine relations.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, requires lobbyists for foreign governments and political parties to disclose to the Justice Department detailed information about their activities on behalf of their clients. They have to disclose all contacts with U.S. government officials, any campaign contributions they've given, fees they receive from clients and expenses incurred in lobbying. They also have to disclose any "informational materials" (originally called propaganda) disseminated on behalf of their clients. Sunlight has digitized several years of filings under the act in the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker.

The ECMU, however, is not a political party. It says its donors are private individuals not connected to the Regions Party; because of that, its lobbyists have the option of registering and disclosing their activities to Congress instead — revealing far less information about their activities. (Lobbyists for the Party of Regions and Ukrainian parliament members Yuriy Ivaniuschenko and Dmitry Shpenov are registered under FARA.)

Until 1995, agents of all foreign interests, not just governments and political parties, had to register and disclose their activities under FARA if they attempted to influence U.S. governments or public opinion. That year, Congress passed the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which gave foreign agents, except for those that represent foreign governments and political parties, the option to file disclosures with the House and Senate rather than the Justice Department.

The change defeated a major purpose of the law. The Foreign Agent Registration Act was passed in 1938 in response to the work of propagandists sponsored by private entities in Nazi Germany. Ivy Lee, a famous public relations expert, aided the Nazi government while working for the German Dye Trust, a private company dominated by Nazis and Nazi supporters. Lee's firm suggested, for example, that Joachim von Ribbentrop, then Adolf Hitler's Commissioner for Disarmament, visit the United States to gain support for the German dictator's rearmament plans.

Until it was amended by the Lobbying Disclosure Act, FARA would have required a Lee to register as an agent of a foreign principal and disclose his contacts and activities. Under current law, he would be exempt.