By Kevin Mooney
By invoking a law regulating foreign agents to pursue prosecution of former Trump campaign officials, special counsel Robert Mueller opened the door to more intense scrutiny of some U.S. environmental groups, according to legal analysts who say China and Russia use such groups to influence America’s energy policy.
But these legal analysts said they also see a danger that Mueller’s investigation could set a precedent for the Justice Department to “selectively enforce” the Foreign Agents Registration Act in a manner that undermines the rule of law and potentially jeopardizes national security.
The Trump administration, they say, should closely examine the relationship between environmental advocacy groups and foreign governments that are considered strategic competitors of the U.S.
“If the Mueller probe has any real benefit, it is that it opened the door for the Justice Department to employ FARA as a basis to investigate green groups that are undermining our country and aiding socialist/communist regimes,” lawyer Mark Fitzgibbons told The Daily Signal.
Because these same environmental groups persistently lobby for policy changes to restrict U.S. energy use and the projection of U.S. military power, the groups may operate at the direction and encouragement of hostile foreign actors, Fitzgibbons and other reform proponents argue.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, which predates World War II, requires anyone who acts as an agent of foreign principals “in a political or quasi-political capacity” to disclose that relationship periodically, as well as “activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities,”according to the Justice Department.
But because FARA has not been strictly enforced, little case history and precedent exist for investigations into the actions of possible foreign agents who decline to disclose their activities, Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit government watchdog, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview.
Americans and their elected representatives have been deprived of the openness and transparency they need to evaluate the political activism and legal tactics of environmental advocacy groups, Fitton said.
The disclosure requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act explicitly state that information made available through registration would help ensure that citizens and officials can get the specifics they need to evaluate the activities of anyone who registers “in light of their function as foreign agents.”
But Fitton expressed concern that the law could be misused and misapplied to advance a political agenda detached from its stated purpose.
“We already know the law has been selectively enforced,” Fitton said of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. “Violations of FARA have typically been handled administratively. If you didn’t file paperwork, you were told to file it. But the Mueller special counsel operation, desperate for prosecutions, started criminally prosecuting FARA regulations where they had never been criminally prosecuted before.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller to serve as special counsel on May 17, 2017, to investigate allegations that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller, a former FBI director, also is probing allegations that the Trump presidential campaign coordinated with Russian operatives in its efforts to win the election.
So far, the Mueller investigation has resulted in dozens of indictments and eight guilty pleas, none of which involves coordination or collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign. An updated list of charges, pleas, and resulting convictions is available here.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman for two months, pleaded guilty in September to charges that he violated FARA because he failed to disclose to the Justice Department that he worked as an agent of Ukraine’s government and as a lobbyist for pro-Russian political forces in that country.
Richard Gates, a former Trump campaign aide and business associate of Manafort’s, also pleaded guilty to FARA violations in connection with his lobbying efforts in Ukraine.
No Comment From Special Counsel
Mueller has pointed to potential violations of foreign agent registration rules in his prosecution of 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies accused of trying to manipulate the 2016 election through internet and social media campaigns.