Former Sen. Joe Lieberman should register as a foreign agent for his work on behalf of embattled Chinese telecommunications company ZTE Corp., according to a complaint filed Tuesday with the Justice Department by the Campaign Legal Center.
Lieberman filed as a lobbyist last month for the company, which is facing scrutiny over alleged national security threats its products pose to the U.S. Under federal law, lobbyists for foreign commercial clients are exempted from the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.
Lieberman is conducting a study of what concerns members of Congress, the executive branch and U.S. businesses have about national security risks that ZTE’s products may pose, according to a disclosure form filed by the firm. However, Lieberman’s firm won’t advocate on behalf of ZTE, according to the disclosure. That means he’s not actually a lobbyist, and should register as a foreign agent, according to the Campaign Legal Center’s complaint.
“He can’t have it both ways,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for limiting the role of money in politics. “He can’t claim to not be engaging in lobbying while taking advantage of the exception for lobbyists.”
Lieberman’s work for the company comes at a critical time. President Donald Trump is considering an executive order effectively barring all American companies from using equipment made by ZTE and Huawei Technologies Co., Reuters reported last month, citing unidentified sources. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to the report by saying countries she didn’t name should produce facts to justify their cybersecurity concerns.
Last year, the Trump administration banned ZTE from buying American technology and components, which threatened the company’s viability, before reversing course. U.S. government agencies can’t buy gear from ZTE or Huawei.
Lieberman, who was the Democratic party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, is a senior counsel with Kasowitz Benson Torres, the law firm of Trump’s longtime personal attorney. After he completes his “independent assessment” of concerns about national security risks that ZTE’s products may pose, he will report his findings and make recommendations to ZTE, according to his disclosure.
Political consultants that advise foreign clients on U.S. policy are among those covered under FARA, the Campaign Legal Center’s complaint says.
Under FARA, representatives of foreign governments, political parties and other foreign clients are required to disclose detailed information on their activities, including the names of government officials they meet or correspond with, written contracts with their foreign clients and all expenditures made on their behalf.
Lobbyists disclose far less information — how much they’re paid, what government agencies they’ve contacted, and what issues and legislation they are following.
Lieberman, who left Congress in 2013, previously registered as a foreign agent for a different client. In November, 2013 he began representing Basit Igtet, a Zurich-based entrepreneur and Libyan national considering a bid for political office in his native country, documents filed with the Justice Department show. The firm arranged meetings with members of Congress for Igtet, to allow him to share his ideas about Libya, but not to advocate for any changes in U.S. policy. Lieberman’s work for Igtet, who ultimately chose not to run for office, ended in Feb. 2014.
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