WATCH: There's a law to make sure lobbyists representing foreign governments are transparent about their causes. But it's hardly enforced. Instead of jail, most violators get a letter.
A federal law you've probably never heard of is getting some attention this week. And it's all thanks to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. During FBI Director James Comey's testimony on Capitol Hill this week, Representative Jim Himes asked whether Manafort ever registered as a foreign agent under FARA. Never heard of FARA? Neither had we. But it's pretty important.
FARA is the Foreign Agents Registration Act. It requires people lobbying on behalf of foreign governments or entities to register with the United States government.
Sheila Krumholz with the Center for Responsive Politics says FARA is key to transparency in democracy. It was developed to combat Nazi propaganda. But it's still relevant.
“We need to know who is pushing proposals, what they stand to gain or lose depending on the outcomes, and take that into consideration when we’re debating a policy," she explained.
The CRP thinks FARA is so important, the organization even includes a searchable data base on its website called Foreign Lobby Watch.
The search tool uses reports supplied by the Department of Justice, which are public. They include everything from the country, firm and even name of the lobbyist doing the work. We searched for Paul Manafort following an Associated Press report about his reported work on behalf of the Ukrainian government years ago. That search shows no listing for that work, but it's unclear whether Manafort was required to register in that situation.
“All we do is put the information out there and let people draw their own conclusions," Krumholz said.
Gary Nordlinger is a Professional in Residence at George Washington University, focused on global advocacy. He talked with Circa about FARA. "I see no point in not registering," Nordlinger said. "I mean why would you go out of your way to violate the law basically? It can carry criminal sanctions.”
Although there's reluctance by some to register because their reputations can suffer, Nordlinger says the disclosure shouldn't be burdensome or embarrassing to people accustomed to making power plays in Washington.
Some of the most colorful people in Washington have represented some of the worst tyrants in the world.
Failing to register under FARA sounds like a big deal. There's the potential for jail time and thousands of dollars in fines. But the Department of Justice encourages "voluntary compliance" and in practice, the law doesn't appear to have much teeth.
The DOJ tells Circa it has only prosecuted four cases in the last 10 years. The last case involved a man the agency said tried to push for sanctions against Zimbabwe's president to be lifted. A plea deal was reached in 2014 in that case.
Paul Manafort's representative didn't respond to specific questions Circa posed about FARA. But in recent reports, he called the allegations about Manafort's work in the Ukraine "baseless."
Still, the White House has distanced itself from Manafort, with spokesman Sean Spicer saying the former campaign manager played a "limited role, for a limited time."