Foreign ‘Agent’ Database Goes Online

By Justin Rood

Jun 5, 2007 1:55pm

Want to discover which former White House official’s firm now lobbies on behalf of Pakistan? Or which prominent lobbying group makes $400,000 a year helping China get its way on international trade issues? It’s public information, but it has been held virtually out of reach for most Americans until now. Records showing which American firms lobby on behalf of foreign interests are now available online. For years, those records have been held in the files of an anonymous windowless office tucked away in a nondescript building on Washington, D.C.’s New York Avenue, all but unavailable to the majority of Americans to whom the documents are supposedly public. The bureaucratic cubbyhole known as the Foreign Agents Registration Unit is open to researchers just four hours a day, and its obsolete computers have been known to break down. Despite the fact the office’s records are public, the office charges a $.50-per-page copy fee, making a 20-page document yours for only $10. Officials have blamed the idiosyncrasies of the office on chronic underfunding. "I’ve wasted many days of my life there," said Nathaniel Heller, who researches foreign lobbying for the nonprofit watchdog Center for Public Integrity. While the odd location, hours and computers were annoying, Heller said the document cost was the most frustrating aspect of the office. "I heard stories of journalists bringing in digital cameras to take pictures of the computer screens so they didn’t have to pay the cost," Heller told ABC News.  But that’s all changing. Last week, the Justice Department quietly posted a link on its Web site to an online search engine, which can pull up the very same documents from any computer connected to the Internet. So you can discover that former Clinton White House aide Jack Quinn signed an agreement to lobby for Pakistan. A spokesman for the firm says that despite the filing, the firm recently severed ties with the country and will submit new paperwork this month. Or that the well-known firm Hogan and Hartson gets $400,000 a year to "render strategic advice" to China on global trade issues. "It’s huge," Heller said of the new online tool. "It makes [the information] much more accessible. Daily beat reporters can access this stuff and still make their deadlines." Now, too, foreign reporters can more easily find out who is representing their country in Washington, Heller observed. "It’s something to celebrate," he said of the new database. Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team?

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus