A government transparency watchdog called Friday for the department to launch an inquiry.
The lobbyist, a major GOP fundraiser called Stephen Payne, this week was asked to resign from a Department of Homeland Security advisory panel after he was surreptitiously videotaped by the London Sunday Times. In excerpts of the tape posted by the newspaper, Payne offers to arrange meetings for an exiled former president of Kazakhstan with senior U.S. administration officials in return for a six-figure fee, including a quarter-million-dollar donation to the $200 million fundraising effort for the George W. Bush presidential library and museum.
Payne said he was entrapped by the newspaper and did nothing wrong, but he is already facing an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Democratic bulldog Rep. Henry Waxman of California.
Promotional materials Payne provided to an undercover reporter and the Kazakh middleman who set him up touted his work for several Central Asian politicians, including the president of Azerbaijan and an Uzbek opposition leader.
Typically, any kind of work for foreign politicians has to be disclosed in extensive detail to the Justice Department, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Payne told United Press International earlier this week his company, Houston-based Worldwide Strategic Partners Inc., did not have to register, since the work was on behalf of commercial entities, not governments.
"I believe that we are in compliance with FARA regulations," Payne wrote in an e-mail message. "We did not need to FARA register as the basis for our work was commercial projects in these countries. We checked with the Department of Justice's FARA division and were informed that we did not need to register for these commercial projects."
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd told UPI the department had seen the report but had no record of any such advice being sought or given.
He said the FARA Unit "at times receives specific inquiries from the public seeking formal legal opinions, known as 'Rule 2' opinions, as to whether legal exemptions may apply to certain activities." Such "formal, written legal opinion(s)" are produced after a thorough review process in which the requester has to provide details of the planned activities.
"A preliminary search of our records," Boyd said, "indicates that the Justice Department's FARA Unit has issued no written legal opinion to Worldwide Strategic Partners or to Mr. Payne concerning the activities of Worldwide Strategic Partners."
In addition, he said, the FARA Unit also gave advice over the telephone to the members of the public concerning "general information" on the law. "We continue to search our records to determine whether or not there have ever been any verbal communications between the FARA Unit and Mr. Payne."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government transparency watchdog, called Friday for the department to look into the apparent violation, which is a felony under the act.
"It is quite clear this work should have been registered," the group's Executive Director Melanie Sloan told UPI. "The Justice Department should launch an immediate investigation."
"Per longstanding policy," said Boyd, "we never comment on whether or not we have launched an investigation."
Legal experts pointed out the fact that Payne had registered earlier work for the government of Pakistan could count against him in any investigation, because it showed he knew what the law demanded.
"Knowledge of the statute's requirements (would be) relevant to any decision to prosecute," Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer and lobbying disclosure specialist, told UPI.
Although the statute puts the onus on the potential registrant, "Only a willful violation constitutes criminal intent which is prosecutable," said Kappel, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.
Payne declined further comment Thursday. "We have said all we are going to," said a man who answered the phone at the Worldwide Strategic Partners office.