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K Street Files: Tracking Lobbyists for Other Countries

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Michaela Sims (left) and Jennifer Bell are launching a new lobby shop today that will focus on tax and health care policy.

One in every $8 spent lobbying Congress and federal agencies comes from foreign governments. 

If there's one fact that sticks with readers of "The Foreign Policy Auction," author Ben Freeman hopes it's that. 

"The fact that foreign governments spend half of a billion dollars per year trying to influence our government should make you uneasy," said Freeman, a national security investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, who self-
published his first book, in an interview.

Freeman started probing foreign governments' activities in Washington, D.C.,  as a political science doctoral student at Texas A&M University. When he came to Washington, he made himself a fixture in the Foreign Agents Registration Act Registration Unit Public Office, a small unit housed within a Justice Department building on the 600 block of E Street Northwest. His analysis of semiannual FARA reports to Congress concluded that foreign governments spent more than $490 million last year on lobbying.

Under FARA, lobbyists representing foreign governments must file twice-yearly reports detailing their interactions with Members of Congress and federal agencies. The reports include the date of every lobbying contact, a description of the issue discussed and press releases, position papers, advertisements or any other informational materials distributed within the U.S. The requirements are much more stringent than those for domestic lobbyists under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and can be hundreds of pages long.

The filings also include contributions made by any lobbyist who has foreign clients, and that is what caught Freeman's eye.

"The Foreign Policy Auction" documents cases from 2007 to 2009 in which lobbyists met with a Member of Congress and made a campaign contribution to that lawmaker's campaign on the same day, or within the same reporting period. On Sept. 25, 2008, for example, Ignacio Sanchez, co-chairman of federal law and policy at DLA Piper, met with then-Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) to discuss U.S. relations with the United Arab Emirates. The same day, he made a $500 campaign contribution, according to FARA filings. One of Sanchez's colleagues, Cristina Antelo, now a principal at the Podesta Group, also met with and made same-day contributions to then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), as well as former Reps. Robert Wexler
(D-Fla.) and Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas).

 It is illegal for foreigners to make campaign contributions, but Freeman argues that this practice creates an opportunity for foreign governments to influence American elections. The reported donations, of course, come from lobbyists' personal funds.

DLA Piper, which is the subject of an entire chapter in Freeman's book, did not respond to Roll Call's - or Freeman's - request for comment.

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