A prosecutor who worked with Special Counsel Robert Mueller will lead a new Justice Department effort focused on sniffing out unregistered foreign agents.
Brandon Van Grack, who took part in the prosecution of Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, was tapped to run a group of investigators looking for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Justice Department national security chief John Demers said March 6 at a legal conference in New Orleans.
The move is an outgrowth of the conclusion by U.S. authorities that Russia sought to influence the 2016 presidential election. Mueller has been investigating Russian interference in the election and whether there was any coordination with the Trump campaign. The appointment of Van Grack to lead the unit signals a more aggressive stance in requiring entities viewed as agents of foreign states to register with the Justice Department, disclosing their ties, payments and activities on behalf of foreign governments.
FARA, as the act is known, has been on the books since the late 1930s but was lightly enforced until recently.
‘Tell Us Who’s Talking’
“All the statute is saying is, ‘Tell us who’s talking,’” Demers told reporters. “Tell us who’s speaking so we can evaluate the remarks in the appropriate context.”
Van Grack’s appointment also suggests that additional prosecutions of firms and people could follow -– likely those the Justice Department has determined should register, but have refused to do so. Van Grack rejoined the department after leaving Mueller’s team a few months ago.
“We’re being more aggressive about who we’re requiring to register and we’re confronting registrants who are resistant to registering,” Demers said.
In January, the department reached a $4.6 million settlement with New York powerhouse law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP over work it did with Manafort to burnish public opinion on behalf of the Republic of Ukraine.
Justice Department officials point to the recent registrations involving foreign, state-aligned television networks, including an American contractor for Russia’s RT and the U.S. division of China’s CGTN, as the types of entities they believe should register. Registrants must file detailed disclosures of whose interests they represent, as well as contacts they’ve made on their behalf and how much they’ve been paid.
Demers said a key issue in the Skadden case was not just the firm’s work on behalf of Ukraine, but also inaccurate representations made to the Justice Department when the firm was asked about it.
Asked if Skadden’s settlement had resolved the Justice Department’s case, Demers said: “As to the firm, yes” –- raising the question of whether the lead Skadden partner on the Ukraine matter, onetime White House Counsel Gregory Craig, or others could still face penalties. Craig left Skadden in April 2018.
Skadden used a legal opinion to lend credibility to Ukraine’s government at a time when it was under international scrutiny. Manafort helped the Ukrainian government hire Skadden to write a report in 2012 justifying the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former prime minister. Her conviction and subsequent imprisonment raised questions about the rule of law under Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-friendly ruler who employed Manafort on and off for almost a decade.
As part of its settlement, Skadden agreed to register as a foreign agent. The $4.6 million it paid in the settlement represented the fees it earned for the Ukraine representation.
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