Robert Kelner

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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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

IRS Announces Major Change To Nonprofit Donor Disclosure Requirements

In a significant and unexpected development, the U.S. Treasury Department announced yesterday that certain nonprofits — including trade associations and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations — would no longer be required to disclose the names and addresses of their donors on the annual “Form 990” they file with the Internal Revenue Service. Although the IRS already … Continue Reading

DOJ Announces Planned Release of FARA Advisory Opinions

The Department of Justice has begun informing persons who obtained Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”) advisory opinions that it will “soon” publish on its website copies of advisory opinions issued since January 1, 2010.  The opinions apparently will be redacted to remove the identities of the requesters and their clients.  For years, the Department has … Continue Reading

New Wave of Trade Lobbying Presents FARA Registration Concerns

Washington is awash with lobbyists seeking to address new steel and aluminum tariffs, and other potential tariffs, on behalf of both foreign and domestic clients.  Lobbying on trade issues in some circumstances may trigger Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”) obligations.  The connection between trade lobbying and FARA was the subject of close scrutiny several decades … Continue Reading

Covington Issues Updated Investigations Manual for House and Senate Chiefs of Staff

Covington today issued the third edition of its Chiefs of Staff manual on handling investigations of Members of Congress and Congressional staff.  The manual was originally published in 2014, but has been updated twice since then.  The new third edition includes some of the latest available statistics and examples.  This manual is intended to advise … Continue Reading

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”): A Guide for the Perplexed

Eighty years ago, Congress enacted the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”), requiring “foreign agents” to register with the Attorney General. As amended over the years, it applies broadly to anyone who acts on behalf of a “foreign principal” to, among other things, influence U.S. policy or public opinion. Until recently, it was a backwater of … Continue Reading

House Tax Bill Opens Door to Expanded Political Activity By Charities

UPDATE:  The provision in the House bill, discussed below, was not included in the final Conference Agreement that became law.  There is one very important political law provision to watch as the tax bill moves to a final vote in the Senate, and potentially a conference committee reconciles the House and Senate versions.  This amendment will … Continue Reading

Rep. Gowdy Plans Deeper Oversight

The new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), outlined his plans for the Committee last week.  As we expected, Mr. Gowdy said that he would pursue more methodical investigations.  Noting that hearings are “an inefficient way to gather facts,” Mr. Gowdy said that the Committee would pursue … Continue Reading
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