On August 6, federal prosecutors in Chicago unsealed a criminal complaint against two men alleged to have worked on behalf of the government of Zimbabwe and President Robert Mugabe to generate political support in the United States to lift the U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe.  The two men – Prince Asiel Ben Israel and C. Gregory Turner – are charged with violating U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe, which prohibit providing “services” to anyone with blocked property.  Mugabe and others associated with Ben Israel’s and Turner’s activities are listed on the Treasury Department’s blocking list.

These new charges continue the trend of federal prosecutors using a variety of strong, federal, criminal provisions – including sanctions law – to regulate lobbying by foreign interests.  For example, in 2009, former State Department official Robert Cabelly was indicted for violating U.S. sanctions against Sudan by lobbying for the country.  Cabelly had reportedly obtained a Treasury Department license and even registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act to lobby, but the government still charged him with operating outside of the licensed activities.  In other cases, the government has prosecuted undisclosed foreign lobbying, such as the recent cases against Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai and Zaheer Ahmad.  The government alleged these defendants sought to influence U.S. government officials without disclosing their activities, as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.  (Fai pled to conspiracy and tax evasion, and Ahmad passed away shortly after the charges.)

All of these cases highlight the importance of considering the Foreign Agents Registration Act, sanctions law, and the many other statutes implicated by lobbying when lobbying for a foreign interest.  The complaint against Ben Israel and Turner focuses solely on the sanctions violations, but the activities appear also to have triggered the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and it does not appear that either man registered with the Department of Justice under that statute.  Although it appears that the government could have charged under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, it did not, for reasons that are not clear based on the publicly available information.  It is possible that those charges could still be added in a subsequent indictment (or information).

The cases against Ben Israel and Turner are likely to lead to some interesting developments.  The affidavit identified three Members of Congress, and although none is named in the complaint, certain facts make it possible to identify two:  Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.).  (They are already being identified in media reports.)  The third Member of Congress is identified as representing California and sponsoring an issues forum in September 2009.  It seems likely that the media will be able to determine this person’s identity.  President Obama and his transition team also appear in the complaint.  The complaint states that an unidentified Illinois state Representative wrote to President-elect Obama to thank him for a conversation regarding the official’s “recent humanitarian mission to Zimbabwe.”  The President’s staff was so concerned about a potential sanctions violation that it contacted the FBI.