A new lawsuit claims that companies helping Russian propaganda in the U.S. aren’t all foreign agents
A new lawsuit against the Department of Justice (DOJ) takes aim at a U.S. regulation requiring those helping Russian propaganda outlets in the U.S. to register as foreign agents.
The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, claims that U.S.-based RM Broadcasting LLC, which sold airtime to Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik, should not be required to file any documentation with the DOJ’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
“RM Broadcasting clearly was not acting as a foreign agent on behalf of any principal,” the lawsuit states. As such, the company’s lawyers argue RM Broadcasting should not be required to file any FARA-related paperwork.
A statute dating back to 1938, FARA was implemented to provide information on individuals in the U.S. who were helping foreign principals.
The lawsuit hinges on a handful of factors — namely, whether RM Broadcasting was actively aiding and abetting the reach and impact of Sputnik. Founded by 76-year-old Arnold Ferolito, who lives in Florida, RM Broadcasting helped broker the sale of airtime on Washington, D.C.’s WZHF 1390 AM station for Sputnik a year ago. The sale involved Sputnik’s parent company, Rossiya Segodnya.
Ferolito did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment
To Ferolito and his lawyers, the sale of the airtime was simply that: a business transaction. “The relationship between RM Broadcasting and Rossiya Segodnya is strictly an arms-length commercial business transaction whereby RM Broadcasting resold radio airtime to Rossiya Segodnya for a monetary profit,” Ferolito’s lawyer wrote in the lawsuit.
As such, any requirements to comply with FARA registration — including providing contracts and communications — were “overbroad, unduly burdensome, and unnecessary,” the lawyers wrote in a letter to the FARA Registration Unit earlier this year.
Specifically, the lawsuit points to RM Broadcasting’s belief that “the public filing of confidential terms of payment business” is apparently unnecessary. In a contract filed alongside the lawsuit, the details of the payments to RM Broadcasting are blacked out. (Another U.S. company, Reston Translator, has already registered with FARA for its work on behalf of Sputnik, but as Newsweek reported, that work includes actually broadcasting Sputnik’s radio programs.)
The DOJ’s FARA Registration Unit, however, begged to differ. In a June 2018 letter to one of Ferolito’s lawyers, unit chief Heather Hunt outlined DOJ’s position:
[W]e have determined that RM has an obligation to register under FARA as an agent for Rossiya Segodnya, a foreign principal under the Act. Under the Contract, RM acts directly as a ‘publicity agent’ and ‘information-service employee’ for Rossiya Segodnya by effecting the dissemination of radio broadcasts under the name of Radio Sputnik over public airwaves. Such activity gives rise to an obligation to register under the Act.
The lawsuit presents something of a test case for FARA, which has seen a remarkable uptick in relevance over the past two years — not least of which is due to assorted members of the Trump campaign, like Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, running afoul of registrations.
Not only have FARA registrations skyrocketed under the Trump administration, but DOJ has also placed renewed emphasis on ensuring organizations affiliated with Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik register with FARA. (The two outlets’ registration fits a prior pattern of FARA requiring registrations from foreign media companies, including those in China, Japan, and the Soviet Union.)
The Justice Department has also made efforts to issue memoranda outlining who, exactly, is required to register with FARA and what qualifies as working on behalf of a foreign principal. Some of the guidelines were written directly by Hunt. However, plenty of questions about FARA requirements remain.
There is one bit of information in the lawsuit, though, that might not help RM Broadcasting’s case. In a letter to Sputnik representative Anton Anisimov, included as an exhibit within the lawsuit, Ferolito wrote, “As you know RM Broadcasting has always had your interest at heart… Since we know the US market and want to provide the best service available not only for broadcast time but also proper PR and advertizing [sic] opportunities.”
Given that PR companies are well within FARA’s writ, RM Broadcasting might have an uphill battle in its fight against FARA.