Aging computers hamper Justice unit's activities

The Foreign Agents Registration Act was passed before World War II with the goal of exposing Nazi propaganda and foreign subversive activity. Now, 66 years later, it serves as a clearinghouse that tracks the hundreds of millions of dollars that foreign governments and businesses spend each year lobbying in the United States.

With few exceptions, those who fall under the act's rules must complete a detailed accounting of their activities, from who met with a lawmaker to how much was spent on office supplies in the service of a client. FARA requirements are much more rigorous than those imposed by the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which covers lobbying by domestic entities. But the stewardship of the FARA filings is not.

FARA filings are updated on a rolling deadline of every six months from the time a lobbying firm was first retained. With no single deadline, it is impossible to compare firms over any given time period. In addition, the Justice Department unit that maintains the FARA records uses computer systems that are at least 10 years old. Last month, the FARA unit's four public terminals -- the only public access to the filings -- were out of commission for more than a week.

The department signed a half-million-dollar contract last spring for a new computer system that is supposed to be in place by December. But neither FARA unit employees nor the contractor, Dynamic Research, would comment on how the upgrade will improve the system. For the time being, public access to the filings will remain a shoe-leather affair, not an online one. "There's a tremendous amount of data that needs to be formatted," said Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra.

National Journal gathered the most recent six-month FARA filings for each of the top lobby firms. In the first half of 2004, Patton Boggs reported $2.5 million in FARA-related earnings, while Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld took in $1.5 million, and Van Scoyoc Associates reported $200,000 over roughly the same period. Barbour Griffith & Rogers reported earning $179,000 from December 2003 through May 2004, and Piper Rudnick reported $2.18 million from September 2003 to February 2004. Cassidy & Associates reported $58,000 in earnings from December 2002 through May 2003, while Greenberg Traurig reported $350,000 from November 2002 through April 2003. Williams & Jensen last received FARA-related fees in 1995 and terminated its registration that year. Dutko Group is not registered with FARA.

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