For all of the Foreign Agents Registration Act’s strengths, it can be a bummer. It requires more substantial disclosure from lobbyists taking foreign money than the typical domestic lobbying disclosure law — except there’s a loophole that allows these foreign lobbyists to file under that domestic law. It allows people to file online, but some people decide to handwrite it anyway. The filings are all put up on the FARA database, but filers can also submit paper forms, which end up getting scanned by the DOJ. That waste of resources produces filings that look like van Gogh lost a fight with a typewriter.
And there’s the borderline amusing fact that the upload system forces filers to convert usable, structured datasets into PDFs. Keyword: borderline.
Thankfully, the Department of Justice invited a number of public interest groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, EPIC and the Project on Government Oversight to brief Associate Attorney General Tony West on some of the transparency reforms the DOJ needs to implement. Sunlight focused on explaining the need for achieving the following broad goals, and a number of critical short-term fixes. Mr. West and his staff also told us of their plans to make the DOJ more transparent, in line with the President’s open government goals.
Broadly, the Department of Justice needs to pursue the following reforms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act:
1) Implement a new, modernized FARA collection and disclosure system that collects and releases detailed, structured data;
2) Until a modernized filing system can be implemented, there are a number of simple, specific improvements that the DOJ can and should effect as soon as possible; and
3) The DOJ should support efforts to close the Lobbying Disclosure Act loophole, which allows FARA agents to disclose less by filing as domestic lobbyists.
These are the specific solutions that could be made tomorrow, which are spelled out in greater detail in the brief (appended to the bottom of this post) that we submitted to the DOJ:
1) The DOJ should allow or require filing data as spreadsheets or through online forms. Right now, the system forces filers to convert these into PDF or image formats, crippling their functionality.
2) Fix the bulk data output function in document search, which is currently broken.*
3) Those who have access to a computer should be encouraged to type their filings.
4) Those who have access to the internet should be encouraged to file online.
5) Set data standard. For instance, filers should be required to report data in one currency, and should use full names of all people included in the filing.
6) The FARA Registration Unit should provide electronic access to all informational materials.
* To view the problem, go to http://www.fara.gov/search.html, search for documents, and then click “Click here for DOWNLOADABLE DATA spreadsheet.”
Here’s the brief we provided to Mr. West and his staff:
Sunlight Foundation Recommendations to the Dept. of Justice Regarding the Foreign Agents Registration Act Sunlight Foundation Recommendations to the Dept. of Justice Regarding the Foreign Agents Registration Act Sunlight Foundation