Foreign influences continue to threaten the U.S. political system
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Foreign influences continue to threaten the U.S. political system

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The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) isn’t likely to be considered among the most important issues that matter to voters; but the law and its enforcement- or lack thereof- needs to be more broadly understood by the citizenry as foreign governments step up their efforts to diminish our sovereignty.

For those unfamiliar with the obscure federal law, FARA was originally conceived during World War II to counter propaganda originating from the Axis Powers, but over time its enforcement was shifted towards lobbyists and public-relations firms acting on behalf of foreign governments.

From the 2016 presidential election through today, renewed interest in FARA sees the law as a means to counter a broad range of foreign influence that is being brought to bear on our political system- most notably electioneering, lobbying and disinformation that originates from non-U.S. citizens.

We’ve heard much about alleged “Russian collusion” over the past few years to influence our internal national politics, but not many are aware of a recent effort to influence the state of Florida and its local municipal governments- also originating from non-U.S. persons.

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The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (FSHCC) recently addressed a letter to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody expressing its concern about efforts being made in South Florida to file lawsuits against major energy companies- at the behest of overseas actors.  The Chamber believes that such activity to influence internal Florida politics is a violation of FARA and a direct threat to our state’s prospects for economic development- both to manufacturers and consumers.

Financed by U.K. billionaire activist investor Christopher Hohn, a group known as the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) was discovered to have lobbied elected officials in Miami and Fort Lauderdale to file public nuisance lawsuits against energy companies in an effort to get them to abandon development projects out of concern of vague “environmental impacts”. 

“This is a nexus of foreign money, climate activism, and local government action that raises suspicion and deserves a closer look. Such a nexus potentially violates both the Lobbying Disclosure Act and the Foreign Agents Registration Act.” – Julio Fuentes, President, FSHCC

Phil Goldberg, special counsel for the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (MAP), has also called attention to the “sustained effort” with a “high coordination and network of academics, lawyers and foundations” and financial backing from non-US sources, “can create the impression that there’s something there that’s not.” 

The MAP released a report this month, “Beyond the Courtroom,” that unearthed this network’s pressure campaign in Florida. The UK-funded Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development employed local lobbyist Seth Platt to urge Fort Lauderdale to sue the energy companies.  

Despite the pressure, Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Alain Boileau said Fort Lauderdale had “no intention of filing a lawsuit” against energy manufacturers over climate change. The MAP also noted that “IGSD’s Center for Climate Integrity worked with the Miami Climate Alliance to rent several billboards in an effort to urge Miami to file climate litigation against energy manufacturers.” 

This activity likely demonstrates the undue foreign influence and money behind lobbying campaigns in Florida, and it deserves greater scrutiny by law enforcement officials.  These potential FARA violations specifically warrant investigation since, as Julio Fuentes concluded, “foreign entities [have] interfered with commercial activity and Florida’s legal system.”

Before the Coronavirus pandemic lockdowns were thrust upon the country back in February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned America’s governors about the growing threat from overseas influence campaigns, particularly from China that were undercutting US interests and posed significant concerns for national security.  

“It’s happening in your states with consequences for our foreign policy, for the citizens who reside in your states and indeed for each of you.” – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Some critics contend that FARA is overly broad and unclear about what actually constitutes “foreign influence” in an interconnected digital age, but Attorney General William Barr has recently warned that FARA is still binding law with implications on certain activities.  “You should be alert to how you might be used, and how your efforts on behalf of a foreign company or government…FARA does not prohibit any speech or conduct. But it does require those who are acting as the ‘agents’ of foreign principals to publicly disclose that relationship and their political or other similar activities by registering with the Justice Department, allowing the audience to take into account the origin of the speech when evaluating its credibility,” Barr stated in a recent speech on China Policy.

Will more of us wise up to efforts of outside forces with questionable motives who seek to influence our sovereign governmental institutions in a harmful way?  Not all efforts to influence are benign or truly in our national interest- we’d all do well to raise the honest questions, as did Julio Fuentes.

 

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