Amid Manafort scandal, Texas lawmakers seek to require foreign lobbying disclosure

State Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, want the Texas Ethics Commission to keep track of which lobbyists have disclosed ties to foreign governments.

State Reps. Sarah Davis and Giovanni Capriglione are seeking to require Austin lobbyists to disclose to state officials if they have business representing foreign governments. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

While President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort faces criminal charges over failing to disclose his lobbying efforts for a foreign government, a pair of Republican state lawmakers is seeking better disclosure from lobbyists who represent foreign interests in Austin.

State Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, have asked the Texas Ethics Commission to require lobbyists at the Texas Capitol to identify if they are registered foreign agents under U.S. law.

“Texas would benefit by easier access to foreign agent registration and designation at the Texas Ethics Commission,” the representatives wrote in a letter to state officials dated Aug. 9. “Such increased transparency will improve the system and help ensure that efforts to exert foreign influence on Texas state government are properly disclosed.”

Lobbyists in Washington, D.C. are required to disclose their political activities representing foreign governments under a federal law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But Capriglione said it can be difficult for state lawmakers to know if the lobbyists paying them a visit in their Austin offices are working on behalf of a foreign government because Texas law does not require its own such disclosures.

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“Knowing who is trying to influence legislation is one of those important things that are necessary to protect our taxpayers, to protect our citizens,” he said.

The issue of foreign influence-peddling has dominated national news amid special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. But Capriglione said there were home-grown examples that had alarmed his constituents enough to raise the issue at town hall meetings.

In one example, Texas’s top health care fraud investigator was forced to resign his post last year after media inquiries revealed his involvement with a private firm that provided services for the government of Iraq. Though Stuart Bowen, the former inspector general for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, claimed he never provided any services for the Iraqi government, a letter sent by the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeking to establish contact between Iraqi government officials and the Trump administration invoked Bowen’s name. State officials later discovered an unsigned contract with the lobbying firm in Bowen’s government email inbox.

Another source of controversy in Austin has been the work of agents representing Turkey who seek to discredit the Houston-based charter school network Harmony Public Schools. With the help of Austin lobbyist Jim Arnold, the international law firm Amsterdam & Partners has accused the state’s largest charter network of funneling money to an organization that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considers hostile and has accused of trying to overthrow his government. The Texas Education Agency in 2016 dismissed those claims.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Iraq, Iran, Russia, we all need to know who are the consultants and lobbyists,” Capriglione said.

It’s unclear how many lobbyists representing foreign interests are working to influence state lawmakers. A federal database of registered foreign agents lists a dozen entries for currently active lobbyists with Texas addresses. A historical database of lobbyists registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which includes entries as far back as the 1970s, includes lobbyists registered at more than 90 different Texas addresses.

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The federal law, enacted in 1938 in response to concerns about Nazi and communist propaganda, is notorious for its lax enforcement and reliance on lobbyists’ voluntary compliance. Recently, it has come under scrutiny because it is the basis of at least one criminal charge against Manafort.

After Manafort was convicted last week of eight criminal charges of financial fraud involving vast sums of money he made advising a Ukrainian political party, he now faces a second trial over alleged foreign lobbying. Manafort is accused, among other things, of not registering under the U.S. foreign agents law despite his alleged participation in a campaign to influence U.S. officials on behalf of Ukraine. It is possible that Manafort’s legal team will seek to delay the trial or have it moved to a different venue.

The case has sent “shock waves through the D.C. community about the importance of properly registering under FARA and knowing where your money comes from,” John Carlin, who was head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division in the Obama administration, told the Wall Street Journal.

Capriglione said his push for more robust disclosure of foreign ties in state government lobbying was not directed at Manafort, but once an issue “makes it on national news, it becomes a topic of more interest,” he said.

He and Davis have asked the Texas Ethics Commission to require lobbyists to check a box on their state-level disclosure paperwork that indicates whether they are required to disclose under federal law. If that fails, the lawmakers are prepared to file legislation next year to enforce the disclosure.

“If lobbyists should have to register as foreign agents for hostile governments in Washington, they should do the same in Austin,” Davis said.

Disclosure: Harmony Public Schools has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.