FARA Enforcement Is Here to Stay

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[co-author: Lauryn Hardy*]

On June 7, 2022, the media published a search warrant application seeking access to the electronic communications of a retired four-star Marine Corps general, General John R. Allen, in a criminal investigation into potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”).1 Originally enacted in 1938 but infrequently enforced until recently, FARA has garnered attention over the past several years as the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has increasingly brought high-profile enforcement actions and investigations. This most recent investigation signals DOJ’s willingness to aggressively investigate and convict individuals under FARA cases and, looking ahead, that DOJ may begin to probe into other activities covered under the broad statute.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act

FARA requires agents of foreign principals who engage in certain political or public relations activities within the United States to register with DOJ. Covered activities include obvious political activities, such as attempts to influence government officials or the public on matters of public policy, but also less obvious activities, such as disseminating information for or in the interests of a foreign principal, or soliciting or distributing funds within the United States on the foreign principal’s behalf. While there are a number of exemptions available to excuse registration in certain circumstances, FARA’s scope remains broad. Failure to register when required by the statute subjects a person or company to civil and, where the conduct was willful, criminal enforcement.

The General Allen Investigation

The warrant application provides rare public insight into an ongoing criminal investigation. As reflected in the warrant application, the government’s investigation appears fairly far along, as the government has conducted interviews with members of Congress and other U.S. government officials, obtained documents through grand jury subpoenas, and secured guilty pleas from two of the key participants in the alleged lobbying effort. The warrant application alleges that General Allen and others engaged in covered political activities by lobbying U.S. officials on behalf of the Qatari government without registering with DOJ, as required by FARA.

In 2017, Qatar was in the middle of an economic dispute with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates stemming from Qatar’s alleged support of Hamas and other militant groups.2 At the time, the Trump administration was reportedly backing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, but all three sought support from the United States.3 According to the warrant application, a business executive named Imaad Zuberi sought to sway the American political opinion in favor of Qatar.4 To accomplish this, Zuberi allegedly enlisted the help of former United States Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan Richard G. Olson.5 Zuberi allegedly hired General Allen to meet with Qatari and American officials, including members of Congress and then-White House Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, to bolster American support for the Qataris.6 According to the warrant application, General Allen did not disclose that he was being paid by Qatar to meet with those officials.7

The warrant application further alleges that General Allen provided a “false version of events” when interviewed by law enforcement in 2020 and failed to produce relevant email messages in response to a grand jury subpoena. These allegations likely explain why the government is pursuing a search warrant in the case. A statement issued by General Allen’s spokesperson said that General Allen had done nothing improper or unlawful.8

Zuberi has already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to 12 years for violating FARA, tax evasion, making illegal campaign contributions, and obstruction of justice.9 Similarly, Olson recently pleaded guilty in June 2022 for illegally lobbying on behalf of Qatar.10 The government’s investigation of General Allen is ongoing.

Increased FARA Enforcement Practices

The revival of FARA cases began with the special counsel investigation and conviction of former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, but more recent FARA cases, such as the General Allen investigation, indicate that the statute is becoming a mainstay in DOJ’s enforcement landscape. The investigation into alleged lobbying of high-level U.S. officials on behalf of the Qatari government implicates the quintessential national security concerns that FARA was designed to address. However, FARA is broader than just cases reaching foreign lobbying campaigns designed to influence U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the broad scope of the statute extends to a number of ordinary activities that people or companies with foreign employers, business partners, or parent entities could engage in without a second thought in the absence of the foreign party.

While the main thrust of criminal FARA enforcement activity to date appears focused on cases with more significant national security implications, companies and individuals with foreign entanglements should be wary that their activities do not stray into the realm of what is covered by FARA, unless one of the statute’s exemptions (such as the commercial or registered lobbying exemptions) applies. As FARA becomes a more regular tool in prosecutors’ toolkit, it becomes more likely that the government will push the statute’s boundaries and wield FARA more aggressively in future cases.

*Lauryn Hardy is a Summer Associate in Vinson & Elkins’ Washington office.

1Mark Mazzetti and David D. Kirkpatrick, Retired General Investigated Over Undisclosed Lobbying for Qatar, N.Y. Times (June 7, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/07/us/politics/general-john-allen-lobbying-qatar.html [hereinafter “NYT Article”].

2Application For A Warrant By Telephone Or Other Reliable Electronic Means at 14-15, In the Matter of the Search of Information stored within the iCloud Account Associated with DSID/Apple Account Number 1338547227 and/or email address rickscafedxb@yahoo.com at Apple Inc., One Apple Parkway, Cupertino, CA 95014, No. 2:22-MJ-1530 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 15, 2022) [hereinafter “Warrant Application”].

3NYT Article.

4Warrant Application at 10−11.

5Id.

6Id.

7Id. at 22−23.

8Alan Suderman & Jim Mustian, Brookings places retired general on leave amid FBI probe, AP News (June 8, 2022), https://apnews.com/article/qatar-middle-east-persian-gulf-tensions-lobbying-government-and-politics-8c660b2906a0311228c59c4f539fae57.

9Press Release, Dep’t of Justice, Political Donor Sentenced to 12 Years in Prison for Lobbying and Campaign Contribution Crimes, Tax Evasion, and Obstruction of Justice, (Feb. 18, 2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/political-donor-sentenced-12-years-prison-lobbying-and-campaign-contribution-crimes-tax.

10Spencer S. Hsu, Ex-US diplomat pleads guilty in Qatar lobbying plot, names general, Wash. Post (June 3, 2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/06/03/richard-olson-qatar-lobbying-allen/.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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