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Sunlight Foundation & ProPublica Create New Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lobbyists for foreign interests disclosed more than 22,000 contacts with executive branch officials, members of Congress and their staffs and others as they sought favorable policies for their clients on everything from tax and trade issues to the resolution of longstanding territorial disputes and U.S. defense policy, a new analysis of filings made in 2008 under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) has found. The $87 million in fees the lobbyists received seemed to otherwise be a good investment for their foreign clients: Members of Congress introduced legislation, wrote letters, or often took action soon after meeting with the lobbyists.

The Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica teamed up to create a searchable, easily accessible and downloadable database of FARA filings that cover contacts made from July 2007 through December 2008. Known as the “Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker,” the new tool can be used to find out which members of Congress were lobbied on behalf of a foreign country, by which country, client or lobbying firm, and what issues were discussed at the meeting. The tracker will allow the public to measure the influence foreign lobbyists have on public policy.

The Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker makes it easier for people to measure the effect this subset of lobbyists have on public policy. FARA requires foreign governments and government-controlled groups to file detailed lobbying disclosures — far more information than domestic lobbyists provide – with the Justice Department. ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation digitized the information and are making it available for reporters, bloggers and the general public to search and see the extent other countries are able to move U.S. policies related to trade, taxation, foreign aid, appropriations, human rights, national security and other issues.

An analysis of the data shows the influence lobbyists have on Washington. For example:

  • After meeting with lobbyists for Bermuda, members of Congress introduced legislation sought by insurance interests in that country to limit the damage—and the claims they’d have to pay—from hurricanes;
  • On the heels of an intensive lobbyist campaign mounted by Morocco, 173 House members backed that country’s position on the disputed Western Sahara territory.

“The Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker shows how effective lobbyists can be,” Ellen Miller, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation said. “While it brings needed transparency to these filings, it raises the question of what lobbyists for healthcare, energy and other interests — who disclose far less information — are up to in Washington.”

“Congress intended to make it possible for citizens to follow the work of foreign lobbyists,” said ProPublica’s managing editor Stephen Engelberg. “But until now, that has been a virtually impossible task that would have required hours and hours of study of paper records. The Tracker is a great step forward. It allows users to follow foreign influence with just a few clicks of a mouse.”

The first news story that accompanies the release of the Tracker shows how Bermuda, Turkey, Ethiopia and Morocco ran multimillion dollar lobbying campaigns in an effort to bend Congress to their agendas on trade, human rights or territorial matters. An accompanying story reports the top spending countries, lobbyists, contacts in Congress and campaign contributions, along with additional examples of lobbying.

The Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica encourage others to search through the database and write their own stories about their local representative’s foreign lobbyists meetings.  And all users will be able to download their search results in a spreadsheet format. Click here for the methodology and how the information was assembled. Founded in 2006, the Sunlight Foundation supports, develops and deploys new Internet technologies to make information about Congress and the federal government more accessible to the American people. Through its projects and grant-making, Sunlight serves as a catalyst to create greater political transparency and to foster more openness and accountability in government. Visit SunlightFoundation.com to learn more.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.  With the largest news staff in American journalism devoted solely to investigative reporting, ProPublica is supported entirely by philanthropy and provides the articles it produces, free of charge, both through its own web site and to leading news organizations selected with an eye toward maximizing the impact of each article.  To get ProPublica’s coverage sent to your inbox, sign up for the daily ProPublica Report.

 

Photo by flickr user sparkieblues http://www.flickr.com/photos/sparkieblues/3971258497/

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