Big U.S. law firms pitch changes to DOJ 'foreign agent' regulations

The U.S. Department of Justice building is bathed in morning light at sunrise in Washington
The U.S. Department of Justice building is bathed in morning light at sunrise in Washington, U.S., February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
  • U.S. Justice Department weighing potential changes to Foreign Agents Registration Act
  • Firms seek clarity over registration, compliance questions

(Reuters) - Several large U.S. law firms have made recommendations to the U.S. Justice Department that they said will provide more clarity regarding the public disclosure requirements under the U.S. foreign agent law of the working relationships between lawyers and their foreign clients.

The law firms — including Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; Wiley Rein; Wiggin and Dana; and Caplin & Drysdale — responded to a Justice Department request in December for views from lawyers, lobby offices and other outlets about potential revisions to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Many of the comments from the firms were posted Tuesday on a U.S. regulatory website.

The decades-old foreign-agent law requires a person acting in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government or political party to reveal the advocacy and payments. The law has come into sharper focus in recent years, amid greater scrutiny of foreign influence efforts in the U.S. and more enforcement actions.

In 2019, former Skadden partner Gregory Craig was acquitted on a charge in Washington, D.C., federal court that he lied to the Justice Department about work he performed for Ukraine.

Comments from the law firms and others urged the Justice Department to consider a range of issues, including the scope of exemptions available to lawyers and others who are working for foreign commercial entities that are not "directly" promoting the interest of a foreign government.

The DOJ was also asked to clarify exemptions specifically for lawyers. Attorneys performing traditional legal work are generally considered outside the scope of the foreign-agent registration law.

The Justice Department is in the early stages of the rule-making process and has not yet issued any proposed changes to the foreign-agent law.

A Justice Department representative did not immediately comment on Wednesday.

"There's a broad recognition that these rules need to be clarified and modernized," Matthew Sanderson, co-leader of Caplin's political law group, told Reuters.

Sanderson and Wiggin partner David Laufman jointly submitted a letter to the DOJ that asked enforcers to more narrowly tailor certain provisions to avoid broad language that might require registration in circumstances where such disclosure is not required.

Christopher Babbitt, a Wilmer partner, suggested in his submission that the DOJ "provide specific examples in the regulations that illustrate the presence or absence of a qualifying relationship."

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