Pakistani pleads guilty; failed to register as U.S. foreign agent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Maryland man has pleaded guilty to charges that he failed to register as a foreign agent in connection with lobbying work he did for the Pakistani government in an effort to shape U.S. foreign policy, the Justice Department said on Monday.

The newly unsealed case against Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry, a Pakistani national and U.S. permanent resident, marks a rare instance in which the Justice Department has pursued a prosecution under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires people who lobby on behalf of foreign governments or political parties to register with the United States.

A critical 2016 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the department lacked a comprehensive enforcement strategy to penalize people who failed to file FARA statements.

That report found that between 1966 and 2015, the department only brought seven prosecutions for FARA violations.

Violations of FARA have gained greater attention since 2016, when U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential election. Russian has denied those findings.

The often unenforced FARA law was thrust into the spotlight by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who last October charged President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, with failing to register as a foreign agent for Ukraine’s pro-Russia government. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Less than a month later, the Justice Department also pressured the Kremlin-backed television station RT America to register as a foreign agent.

The television station obliged, saying it would rather register with the U.S. government and disclose certain financial information than face possible criminal prosecution.

In Chaudhry’s case, filed April 19 and unsealed on Monday, the government said he worked to influence U.S. officials on foreign policies toward Pakistan from 2012 through 2018 without disclosing it.

The Justice Department said he represented that his activities were merely educational and not affiliated with Pakistan’s government when he met with think tank scholars and current and former U.S. government officials, including U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents who interviewed Chaudhry when he returned to the United States from travels to Pakistan.

The Justice Department said he cultivated relationships to gather insights on the government’s policies toward Pakistan, and then sought to “neutralize unfavorable views of Pakistan” during roundtable discussions and other interactions by trying to manipulate the discussion.

Federal public defenders representing Chaudhry could not be immediately reached for comment.

Sentencing is scheduled for July 30. He faces a maximum five years in prison, a $10,000 fine and three years of supervised release upon completion of the prison term.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Dan Grebler