ZTE has long been under fire from U.S. officials and congressmen who say the company could endanger national security by providing espionage opportunities for the Chinese government.
Though the well-connected Lieberman was thought to be hired to help take pressure off of the embattled ZTE, his firm Kasowitz Benson Torres (KBT) — the law firm of President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz — tells a different story.
Clarine Nardi Riddle, chair of the firm’s Government Affairs and Strategic Counsel Practice Group and Lieberman’s former chief of staff in the Senate who also registered as a lobbyist for ZTE, said Lieberman is not actually “lobbying” for ZTE but rather is gathering concerns about the company from lawmakers and officials.
“Senator Lieberman is conducting a national security assessment investigation, where he will listen to congressional, executive branch, and customer national security concerns, but will not be attempting to influence them nor advocate on ZTE’s behalf,” Nardi Riddle told the Center for Responsive Politics in an email.
“His mission is to listen, assess and then make recommendations to ZTE on how to address U.S. national security concerns. While these activities are not associated with the common understanding of “lobbying,” the Lobbying and Disclosure Act can be interpreted to require registration because he is meeting with “covered officials” under the statute. Out of an abundance of caution, Senator Lieberman will register under the LDA so that there will be no question about his and ZTE’s transparency and compliance.”
The LDA disclosure reiterates the refrain that Lieberman and KBT are not advocating for ZTE but have decided to register under the LDA “in the interest of transparency and caution.”
After collecting his findings, Lieberman and his firm claim he will submit a report to ZTE including the concerns of executive branch officials and members of Congress.
“These sound like the kinds of activities that would come close to triggering FARA registration,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Foreign agents and lobbyists working to influence U.S. policy or public opinion on behalf of private entities that would otherwise be required to follow registration requirements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) may choose to instead register as a lobbyist with the House Clerk’s Office and Secretary of the Senate so long as the agent has engaged in at least some lobbying activities that fall under the LDA. However, the LDA exemption is not available to agents of a foreign government or political party, or if the “principal beneficiary” of the activities is a foreign government or political party.
In a recent FARA advisory opinion, the Justice Department found that lobbying for a U.S. corporation that is more than 51 percent owned by a foreign government would not qualify for the LDA exemption because the foreign government would be the principal beneficiary of the activity. China’s government may not own ZTE, but is reported to have close ties to the Chinese government.
“Lieberman is apparently claiming that he is not lobbying on behalf of ZTE, so by his own admission he should not be eligible for the LDA exception and may have to register as a foreign agent,” Fischer said.
China’s link to ZTE might raise further questions about whether lobbying for ZTE could qualify for the LDA exemption, Fischer added, even if Lieberman had engaged in lobbying activities on the company’s behalf.
Top U.S. intelligence officials consider ZTE a potential threat to national security due to its ties with the Chinese government, a sentiment shared by prominent lawmakers.
The U.S. imposed an $892 million penalty onto ZTE in 2016 for violating sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The telecom was brought to the brink of collapse due to strict sanctions from the Commerce Department that included a seven-year ban on purchasing American components.
In July, the Trump administration lifted the ban, settling on a deal in which ZTE would pay a $1 billion penalty, overhaul its leadership and allow a compliance team to be installed inside the company for a decade.
ZTE isn’t out of the woods yet, though. Trump is reportedly considering barring U.S. companies from using telecommunications equipment made by ZTE and Chinese telecom Huawei, and Congress remains a threat to the company’s vitality.
Under increased scrutiny, as it expands into the U.S. market, ZTE ramped up its lobbying operations this year, spending more than $2.2 million through the first three quarters of 2018, according to LDA disclosures from Hogan Lovells.
Lobbying and public relations powerhouse Mercury Public Affairs also launched influence operations for ZTE, inking a contract for a $75,000-per-month retainer paid through Hogan Lovells just one day after Trump tweeted about a potential deal to lift penalties on ZTE, according to disclosures on file with the Justice Department under FARA. As a part of its efforts, Mercury enlisted former Trump campaign aide official Bryan Lanza.
Shortly after leaving the Senate in 2013, Lieberman quickly leaped into the revolving door, joining KBT as a senior counsel and quietly registering as a foreign agent to work for the interests of Basit Igtet just one day before Thanksgiving in 2013. The Libyan businessman and politician agreed to pay a six-figure sum to Lieberman for activities to “communicate information to the principal as well as to communicate information abt the principal to interested persons in the public and private sector,” activities which included meetings with U.S. government officials. The Justice Department’s semi-annual report to Congress on FARA activities for that time period classified the activities as “lobbying.”
Also in 2013, he joined the conservative American Enterprise Institute, penning op-eds on international policy alongside former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz), another member of the revolving door club, and became chairman of the board at Victory Park Capital, a global investment firm.