A Washington lobbying firm that worked on a covert influence campaign in the U.S. under the direction of two former top campaign advisers to President Donald Trump has registered after the fact with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. It acknowledged its work could have principally benefited Ukraine's government, led at the time by a pro-Russian political party.
The Podesta Group Inc. disclosed details of lobbying it did from 2012 through 2014 on behalf of a Brussels-based nonprofit, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine. The firm, run by the brother of Hillary Clinton presidential campaign chairman John Podesta, reported in its filing that it was paid more than $1.2 million for its efforts. It cited unspecified "information brought to light in recent months" and conversations with Justice Department employees as the reason for its decision.
The disclosure follows reporting by The Associated Press in August, citing emails obtained by the AP, that the firm of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, who served in a senior role in the Trump campaign, had overseen the lobbying effort, which sought to promote a Ukrainian political party's interests in Washington. President Donald Trump pressured Manafort to resign as his presidential campaign chairman immediately after AP's reporting.
The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act requires people working on behalf of foreign political leaders to disclose their efforts to the Justice Department. Willfully failing to register is a felony, though the department rarely files criminal charges in such cases. It routinely works with lobbying firms to help them get back in compliance by registering and disclosing their work.
The Podesta Group and another lobbying firm, Mercury LLC, had previously disclosed their lobbying work to Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, but neither firm had registered with the Justice Department. A foreign agent registration requires lobbying firms to disclose more details about their work than is required under the Congressional registration, including the details of the lobbying contract, individual contacts with American officials and any attempts to influence U.S. public opinion.
In a statement to the AP, Kimberley Fritts, CEO of the Podesta Group, said that the Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration unit worked with the firm to make sure it was complying with federal law.
"The Podesta Group has routinely filed FARA registrations for our various clients. We have, and will continue to have, no hesitation doing so to underscore our commitment to transparency," Fritts said.
Fritts said that the European Center for a Modern Ukraine had previously certified to the Podesta Group that it was not a vehicle of a foreign government or political party, which is why the lobbying firm only previously registered with Congress. Fritts said that determination changed because of "information brought to light in recent months" but did not specify what information.
As of Wednesday, the Justice Department's database did not list Manafort, Gates or Mercury as registered foreign agents for the same work. Calls and emails to representatives for Mercury were not immediately returned.
Manafort's spokesman said he was in talks with the government about registering as a foreign agent before the 2016 election and is now "taking appropriate steps" in response to "formal guidance" from the government.
The spokesman said Manafort's lobbying work was not conducted on behalf of the Russian government and began before Manafort started working with the Trump campaign.
Gates did not respond to text messages left by the AP on Wednesday afternoon. His voicemail box was full.
The Podesta Group has previously acknowledged that Manafort's firm, DMP International, had provided guidance about the lobbying effort. The Podesta Group said it did not understand that Manafort and Gates were simultaneously being paid by the Party of Regions, the pro-Russian political party of Ukraine's then-president, Viktor Yanukovych.
As the AP reported in August, the lobbying effort— which was funded by at least $2.2 million— included not only traditional outreach to politicians in Washington but attempts to influence American public opinion and gather political intelligence on competing lobbying efforts in the U.S. The details of the lobbying effort were detailed in emails obtained by the AP last year.