The Department of Justice recently announced a new online system for filing, storing, and searching registrations under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The policy change is something to be aware of from a corporate compliance standpoint, as it could apply to senior executives who receive requests from foreign governments for help with policy-related objectives.

Enacted in 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is a disclosure statute that requires agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities.

Briefing reporters on the system, Assistant Attorney General John Demers noted FARA could apply to senior executives who receive requests from foreign governments for help with policy-related objectives. “Nobody should think, ‘I’m not a lobbyist or lawyer, therefore I don’t have to abide by the statute,’” he said. “There are nontraditional groups that need to be careful of the statute and what they are asked to do by foreign governments.”

According to the Justice Department, “the enhanced system, known as eFile, will increase public transparency and allow for better analysis of new filings. The system will also benefit new registrants who will file using fillable web-form, instead of by filling out PDFs, making it easier for them to upload information and to update registrations, as the statute requires.”

These improvements build on the FARA Unit’s expansion, earlier this summer, of the website’s search features, which enable full-text searches and downloads of results in bulk format (e.g. CSV, XML) or via machine-readable API endpoints (e.g. CSV, XML, JSON) of more than 80,000 online FARA filings, and last year’s decision to publish its advisory opinions online.

“FARA helps protect the integrity of American democracy by combating covert foreign government influence in our political process,” Demers said. “Improving the FARA filing system is part of the Department’s commitment to improving transparency of foreign-influence activities.”

“This new system will make it easier for registrants to comply with their legal obligations and for the public to remain informed of their activities,” Demers added. “The more accessible we make information on foreign political activities to the public, the better we accomplish our mission.”

FARA enforcement

The Justice Department noted its “commitment to transparency and enforcement of the statute has borne fruit.”

Consider the following examples:

  • In 2018 alone, more than 20 individuals and entities were criminally charged with violations involving FARA—more than the total number of individuals and entities charged in the prior 50 years.
  • In May, the Division used its civil enforcement authority for the first time since 1991 to obtain a court order requiring RM Broadcasting to register as the agent of a Russian state-owned media enterprise.
  • At current rates, the Justice Department is on track to double the number of new registrants and new foreign principals registering annually as of 2016. Moreover, almost twice the number of individuals who work for registrants (known as “short-form registrants”) have registered, increasing transparency concerning the individuals (and not just the entities) engaged in foreign influence activities.
  • The FARA Unit has increased the number of inspections of FARA registrants, to audit compliance with their record-keeping and reporting obligations, by over 30 percent, from an average of about 14 a year (from 2010 to 2018) to 20 a year.

The revamped FARA eFile system will streamline the registration process and improve searching and analysis of FARA filings. The new process is self-guided, provides instructions and definitions, and automatically pre-populates data in subsequent filings.

Importantly, eFile will help ensure all required fields are completed and responses are standardized, which will promote transparency and efficiency. Applicants can prepare their materials offline, using templates, which they can upload at the time of filing.

Although only new FARA registrants will use the web-fillable eFile system at this time, and existing registrants will continue to use the legacy method, further updates to the website are planned that will transition all filings to the new platform. Additional details regarding this feature, including the templates, are posted on the FARA website.