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Robert Kelner

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group. Mr. Kelner provides political law compliance advice to a wide range of corporate and political clients.  His compliance practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to play, and government ethics laws, as well as legal ethics rules.  His expertise includes the Federal Election Campaign Act, Lobbying Disclosure Act, Ethics in Government Act, Foreign Agents Registration Act, and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  He is also a leading authority on the arcane rules governing political contributions by municipal securities dealers, investment advisers, hedge funds, and private equity funds.  Mr. Kelner advises Presidential political appointees on the complex process of being vetted and confirmed for such appointments.

In addition, he regularly advises corporations and corporate executives on instituting political law compliance programs.  He conducts compliance training for senior corporate executives and lobbyists.  He has extensive experience conducting corporate internal investigations concerning campaign finance and lobbying law compliance, as well as other corporate compliance matters.  Mr. Kelner regularly defends clients in investigations by the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. House & Senate Ethics Committees, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, the House & Senate Judiciary Committees, the House Energy & Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and other congressional committees.  He has prepared numerous CEOs and corporate executives for testimony before congressional investigation panels, and he regularly leads the Practicing Law Institute’s training program on congressional investigations for in-house lawyers.  He also defends clients in Lobbying Disclosure Act audits by the GAO and enforcement actions and audits by state election and lobbying enforcement agencies.

Mr. Kelner has appeared as a commentator on political law matters on The PBS News Hour, CNBC, Fox News, and NPR, and he has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Legal Times, Washington Times, Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, USA Today, Financial Times, and other publications.

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Covington Publishes Comprehensive Advisory Comparing Biden and Trump Executive Orders on Ethics

The ethics rules that apply to Presidential appointees shifted Wednesday, in some ways significantly, as President Biden, just hours after being sworn in, signed an “Executive Order on Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel” and President Trump, just hours before his term expired, revoked his Executive Order on Ethics. While the Biden and Trump Executive … Continue Reading

DOJ Announces Arrest in New FARA Case

The U.S. Department of Justice today announced the arrest of an alleged agent of the Iranian government, who has been charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”).  The defendant is an Iranian political scientist, living in the United States as a permanent resident.  The Justice Department alleges that for years he has engaged … Continue Reading

Covington Releases Investigations Manual for House and Senate Chiefs of Staff

Today Covington released an updated version of its manual for Chiefs of Staff to Members of Congress concerning best practices for responding to government investigations of Members and their staff.  Titled “A How-To Guide for Chiefs of Staff,” the manual describes how government investigations of Members and staff unfold and the steps that Chiefs of … Continue Reading

A Curious Advisory Opinion Reinterprets the FARA Exemption for Lawyers (and Resolves a FARA Mystery)

Last week, the Department of Justice’s FARA Unit released a curious advisory opinion.  The new opinion stated that it replaced an advisory opinion released by the Department in December 2019, and it revised the Department’s guidance on the scope of the lawyers’ exemption to FARA.  As far as we can tell, this is the first … Continue Reading

Sen. Grassley’s Unsuccessful Effort to Pass FARA Reform Legislation Leads to Bipartisan Commitment for Comprehensive Review of the Law

On Wednesday, December 16, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sought, and failed to achieve, unanimous consent to pass legislation that would have granted significant new powers to the Department of Justice to enforce compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.  In objecting to passage, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said that the Senate should “take a step … Continue Reading

A Primer for Navigating the Presidential Appointee Vetting and Confirmation Process

With the election over, the process of selecting and vetting individuals to fill the next administration’s key appointed positions is quickly shifting into high gear. For those who are called to serve in such positions, the decision to enter the process may be one of the most important and life-changing decisions they ever make. Accordingly, … Continue Reading

Guidelines for Interacting with the Biden-Harris Transition and the Biden Inaugural Committee

With the election over, attention now turns to the transition and the upcoming inauguration of the new Biden-Harris Administration. In this alert, which will be of interest to chief compliance officers and many others across the country, Covington’s Election and Political Law Practice Group provides insight into what promises to be a transition and inauguration … Continue Reading

Guidance Regarding Contributions to Recount and Election Dispute Funds

As both presidential and down-ticket candidates gear up for post-election recounts and related litigation in several states, they and their political parties will be raising new funds to finance these efforts. As with campaign contributions made before the election, there are a variety of rules that apply to contributions to support post-election disputes. The Federal … Continue Reading

Increased Enforcement Risk for Criminal Campaign Finance Violations

Every four years, prosecutors at the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) train their sights on money spent to influence the outcome of the presidential election—and those who spend it.  While the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has exclusive jurisdiction to penalize and enforce civil violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), 52 U.S.C. § 30101 et … Continue Reading

The Supreme Court’s Mazars Decision Contains a Significant Suggestion That Congress May Be Bound by the Attorney-Client Privilege in Congressional Investigations

Understandably, much of the commentary following the release of the Supreme Court’s blockbuster decision in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP has focused on the impact of the Court’s ruling on the long-running quest for the President’s tax returns and other financial records.  Buried in the Court’s opinion, however, is an easily overlooked aside regarding the … Continue Reading

DOJ Begins to Move Existing FARA Registrants to a New E-File System

Following the Department of Justice’s announcement in March 2019 of an initiative to increase enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”), the Department began rolling out a new electronic filing system for FARA registrations in September 2019. At that time, as Covington reported, the new system applied only to new registrants, and the Department … Continue Reading

Congressional Pandemic Oversight Bodies Begin to Take Shape

As we reported in our prior client advisory on the wave of investigations to follow the pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act established three new bodies to conduct oversight and investigations on pandemic-related issues. Separately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a special committee to conduct additional pandemic-related oversight. In recent weeks, … Continue Reading

Reopening the FEC

In a 49-43 vote along party lines, the Senate confirmed Texas attorney James “Trey” Trainor to the Federal Election Commission today.  This gives the FEC a quorum for the first time since August 31, 2019, when former Commissioner Matt Petersen stepped down to enter private practice.  What effect will this have on the FEC and … Continue Reading

House Leaders Push Ahead with Proposal for Virtual Oversight

Last month, we highlighted congressional efforts to ensure that Congress is able to continue conducting the business of the American people during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. After weeks of halting progress, those efforts took an important step forward this morning with the release of a proposed resolution that would temporarily modify the House rules to enable remote … Continue Reading

Past as Prologue: The Wave of Investigations to Follow the Pandemic Recovery and Actions that Companies Can Take Now to Prepare

On March 30, 2020, the inspectors general of several major agencies selected the Department of Defense Inspector General, Glenn Fine, to lead a newly created federal oversight entity that will investigate waste, fraud, and abuse in connection with the massive new coronavirus economic relief legislation. The inspectors general were exercising new authority contained in the … Continue Reading

Congress Creates New Oversight Functions for Coronavirus Relief

Although a final version of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is not yet available, based on what we know so far, it appears that the legislation will include the provisions described below establishing oversight functions for the use of stimulus and bailout funds.  According to a number of sources, the bill … Continue Reading

Interacting with the Government During the Pandemic: Compliance Blind Spots for Corporations and Executives

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are reverberating in every sector of the global economy, from life sciences to transportation, retail to manufacturing, financial services to sports and entertainment. As federal, state, and local governments attempt to blunt the pandemic’s public health and economic effects, many companies are frantically working with government to seek the … Continue Reading

New Changes to Foreign Agents Registration Act Forms and E-File System

Following the Department of Justice’s announcement in March of an initiative to increase enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”), the Department has rolled out a new e-file system for FARA registrations.  Notably, the new system only applies to new registrants, although the Department indicated that it will transition existing registrants to the new … Continue Reading

Florida FARA Case Leaves Troubling Precedent

On May 7, 2019, a federal District Court in the Southern District of Florida ruled that an American company, RM Broadcasting, must register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”) for its agreement to broadcast radio programming from Rossiya Segodnya (meaning “Russia Today”), a Russian state-owned news agency.  Although the decision … Continue Reading

Congressional Investigations and the Rules of the 116th Congress

With Congress heavily engaged in launching and pursuing new congressional investigations, particularly since the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, many of our clients have questions regarding the rules that govern congressional investigations. While many aspects of congressional investigations are not subject to any rules at all, the House, Senate, and their respective committees … Continue Reading

Congress Amends LDA Forms to Require Reporting of Lobbyist Convictions

The recent passage of the Justice Against Corruption on K Street Act of 2018 (“JACK Act” or the “Act”) imposes new requirements on those registering and filing reports under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (“LDA”). The Act amends the LDA to require that LDA registrants disclose listed lobbyists’ convictions for criminal offenses involving bribery, extortion, embezzlement, … Continue Reading

New Department of Justice FARA Opinion May Narrow the “LDA Exemption”

The Department of Justice’s FARA Unit appears to have signaled a significant narrowing in the scope of a major FARA exemption that is especially important to private sector companies, including U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations.  The apparent narrowing of FARA’s exemption for those who register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (“LDA”) appeared in an advisory … Continue Reading

U.S. Department of Justice Announces Foreign Agents Registration Act Enforcement Initiative

Covington issued several client alerts in recent years warning of a rising tide of enforcement of the once-obscure Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (“FARA”). Signs of this trend emerged long before the recent, high-profile Special Counsel’s Office investigation. Nonetheless, there was persistent skepticism abroad in the land, particularly among businesses outside the lobbying industry, … Continue Reading

Covington Issues Client Advisory Concerning “Earmarked” Contributions To Politically Active Organizations

A perennial compliance issue for corporations, family offices, and individual major donors who are considering contributions to politically active outside groups involves determining whether the contributions will be treated as “earmarked” for a specific candidate or political committee, which can result in legal compliance issues as well as disclosure of the donor’s identity.  The new … Continue Reading
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