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Culture of Foreign Lobbying and Its Big Paydays

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Mueller’s Digging Exposes Culture of Foreign Lobbying and Its Big Paydays



WASHINGTON — The mandate given to Robert S. Mueller III and his team was broad: to investigate not just Russian election interference but also any related crimes they might unearth. So when this group of seasoned prosecutors began rooting around Washington, they pounced on a ripe target — lobbyists taking millions of dollars from foreign governments.


At the trial of Paul Manafort, an unflattering picture has emerged of lawyers, lobbyists and consultants from both political parties winning big paydays for work on behalf of a Kremlin-aligned former Ukrainian strongman. Some spent the money on cars and homes, prosecutors said, and a jacket made of ostrich for Mr. Manafort.


The vigor with which Mr. Mueller has investigated the flows of foreign money from Ukraine, Turkey and other countries into Washington could be as much a part of his legacy as special counsel as whatever he discovers about possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign or presidential obstruction of justice.


The Manafort case is part of a broader inquiry into the lucrative work done on behalf of the former president of Ukraine, Viktor F. Yanukovych, and Mr. Mueller has handed some elements of the investigation to prosecutors in Manhattan. Beyond the special counsel’s office, the Justice Department has also recently been pursuing foreign influence cases with greater urgency.


All of this has prompted lobbyists to hunt for advice about how to comply with laws governing that sphere, long viewed as toothless. “The phone rings much more often with this question than it did two years ago,” said Tom Spulak, a partner at the King & Spalding law firm who advises on lobbying compliance.


Over the past year, Mr. Mueller and the Justice Department have pursued numerous cases both under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, and related to foreign influence operations more broadly. FARA prosecutions were once almost unheard-of, according to a Justice Department inspector general report: For nearly a half-century, from 1966 until 2015, the department pursued only seven.


In addition to Mr. Manafort, the recent cases include the special counsel’s indictments against Russians who disseminated stolen information and used disinformation to influence how Americans perceived the candidates in the 2016 presidential election. Also among them is the complaint against Maria Butina, the Russian accused of acting as a foreign agent and plotting to gain Republican support for pro-Russia policies.


Even the case against Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, included allegations that he had lied to investigators about lobbying work he did on behalf of the Turkish government.


Taken together, the cases shine a light on foreign influence operations that have become deeply embedded in Washington, and the culture of lobbyists who get rich helping their foreign clients affect how laws and policies are made in the capital.




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