Michael Pfeifer

Abramoff Pleads Guilty to Criminal Lobbying Violation in Landmark Prosecution

Last month, the US Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed multiple criminal charges against well-known lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including a charge that Abramoff violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act (“Act”). According to the US Department of Justice, Abramoff plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and violating the LDA for separate cases. This marks the first ever known prosecution of a lobbyist for a criminal violation of the LDA. Abramoff was previously sentenced to six years in federal prison for mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and tax evasion related to lobbying efforts on behalf of Native American casino businesses and tribes.

The DOJ charged Abramoff with knowingly and corruptly failing to register as a lobbyist, as required by the LDA, after being retained for lobbying efforts by a client in the marijuana industry. Specifically, the DOJ alleged that in June of 2017, Abramoff failed to register as a lobbyist for efforts on behalf of the client that involved communications with one or more federal officials, as required by the LDA. The LDA requires, generally, that any person engaged in lobbying efforts with the federal government register as a lobbyist with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives within 45 days of the retention by the client or making the triggering contact. In Abramoff’s case, an FBI undercover agent posed as a potential client seeking assistance with federal lobbying efforts.  Abramoff signed an engagement and met with members of Congress, but failed to register for his efforts.

In a separate, unrelated matter, the DOJ alleged that Abramoff conspired with Marcus Andrade to mislead investors about a proposed new cryptocurrency called AML Bitcoin. The DOJ alleges that Abramoff and Andrade purported to show investors that their crypto-currency would comply with anti-money laundering and ‘know-your-customer’ laws and regulations. In one instance, Andrade and Abramoff hired writers to publish op-eds falsely claiming that NBC had rejected a Super Bowl ad featuring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un yelling at his subordinates for failing to hack the cryptocurrency.

The criminal prosecution against Abramoff for violating the LDA is being viewed as a significant moment that possibly signals new aggressiveness in federal lobbying enforcement. Transparency advocates have long contended that the registration and reporting obligations of the LDA are widely flouted by federal lobbyists, and criticized the DOJ for lack of enforcement in both the civil and criminal context. While it remains to be seen if this is an idiosyncratic prosecution driven by Abramoff’s high profile and past history as a lobbyist, it nevertheless serves as a reminder to companies, firms and individuals engaged in federal lobbying to employ a diligent compliance framework to ensure that the registration and reporting requirements of the LDA are met. The Dentons Political Law Group will continue to provide updates regarding this and other lobbying compliance-related developments.

Trump Impeachment Update: Senate acquits

On Wednesday, February 5, the United States Senate voted to acquit President Trump of the two articles of impeachment that the US House of Representatives passed on December 18 and hand-delivered to the Senate on January 15. The vote concluded a trial that lasted 20 days, saw 36 hours of presentations, 16 hours of Senate questioning, and some late-inning drama that ultimately resulted in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell securing enough votes to prevent introduction of witnesses and new evidence, a move that would have delayed the final vote indefinitely. 

Late last Friday after Senate questioning ended, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, a retiring senator from Tennessee, announced that he would vote against a measure to introduce witnesses and new evidence. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) announced that she would support the measure, joining Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) as the only members of their party willing to break ranks with their caucus to hear from witnesses. Had Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another moderate Republican, joined her colleagues from Maine and Utah, the vote count on the measure would have been 50-50, and Chief Justice John Roberts would have had to cast the deciding vote as the presiding officer. But Senator Murkowski ultimately voted against the measure, offering as one of the reasons that it had become clear that some of her colleagues intended to “politicize this process, and drag the Supreme Court into the fray, while attacking the Chief Justice. I will not stand for nor support that effort.”

Some Senate Republicans, as well as the President, wanted the Senate to conduct the final vote last Friday evening, which would have allowed the President to address the nation on the State of the Union on Tuesday without a cloud hanging over his head. However, other Republicans, and the Democrats, wanted an opportunity to make floor speeches about the impeachment trial. McConnell reached a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to hold the final vote this afternoon. The President, for his part, did not mention the impeachment trial during Tuesday night’s SOTU address, and other news events, including the Super Bowl and the Iowa Democratic Caucus, prevented the impeachment trial from receiving much media attention over the last few days.

Senator Joe Machin (D-WV) has drafted a Senate resolution to censure the President, and has suggested that consideration of such a resolution would garner bipartisan support by giving Senators who don’t believe the President’s conduct warrants removal from office a formal opportunity to condemn the President’s actions. While both moderate Democrats and Republicans might like the opportunity to vote on such a resolution, it seems unlikely that the Republican leadership in the Senate will allow such a resolution to come to a vote. McConnell has said that he wants to move on after the acquittal, and various Republicans in the Senate have suggested that if the Democrats wanted a censure vote, they should have pursued such a vote in lieu of impeachment.

When Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65 that impeachment would “seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused,” he correctly forecast the dynamics that have played out over the past few months. As Senator Murkowski said in her statement last Friday night, “It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed. We are sadly at a low point of division in this country.”

Impeachment on a Page – Week of January 20, 2020

Impeachment on a Page – Week of December 9, 2019

As developments in the Trump impeachment inquiry continue to unfold, Dentons’ Public Policy group has created a quick reference guide to the current status of this fast-moving process. Enclosed please find “Impeachment on a Page” for the week of December 9, 2019.

Previous Updates

Trump Impeachment Inquiry Alerts

Click here to subscribe and receive email updates directly to your inbox on the impeachment drama on Capitol Hill, including highlights of key testimony and documentary evidence, the White House’s response and the latest impeachment polls.

Impeachment on a Page – Week of December 3, 2019

As developments in the Trump impeachment inquiry continue to unfold, Dentons’ Public Policy group has created a quick reference guide to the current status of this fast-moving process. Enclosed please find “Impeachment on a Page” for the week of December 3, 2019.

Previous Updates

New social media policies regarding political advertising already changing the 2020 political playbooks

As the national conversation surrounding the role of social media companies in influencing elections continues to heat up in the run-up to the 2020 elections, Twitter and Google have taken drastic and controversial steps to strengthen their internal political advertising policies.

Social media platforms have faced growing scrutiny since the 2016 election, as various investigations have verified that foreign actors exploited weaknesses in their digital advertising rules to spread misinformation through targeted political outreach. In light of these findings, technology companies are under mounting pressure from the public and Congress to push back against the spread of political disinformation through their platforms.

In November, Twitter became the first social media provider to institute a ban on political advertising across its platform. The ban took effect on November 22, following an October 30 announcement from CEO Jack Dorsey and the November 22 release of the full policy to the public. The ban applies to any promoted political advertisements intended to influence elections and ballot measures. Under its new rules, all political advertisements, whether from campaigns, government officials (elected or appointed), PACs or 501(c)(4) groups, that mention specific candidates, elections or legislation will be banned. These restricted sources will also be prohibited from running any paid/promoted advertisements on Twitter’s platform under the political ad ban. Guidance published by Twitter identifies “political content” as any content that includes references to a candidate, political party, government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive or judicial outcome. While candidates and government officials will no longer be able to launch promoted advertisements to targeted audiences on Twitter, there are no restrictions on what individual user accounts can post or share with existing followers. Additionally, any advertisements run by restricted sources that contain references to political content (e.g., appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against political content) are banned under the new policy.

In addition to instituting a blanket ban on political advertisements, Twitter’s new policy seeks to place restrictions on targeted digital advertisements for high-profile social issues, such as climate change, gun control, and abortion. Individuals and groups will no longer be able to target social-issue ads to a user’s zip code or political identification. Instead, targeted advertisements will be restricted to broad geographical zones, such as states. News outlets will be exempted from the advertising ban provided posts/ads do not advocate for a specific political outcome. Organizations (including businesses and 501(c)(3) organizations) and activists will not be completely blocked from running ads on the platform however. Advertisements that focus on broadly defined political causes and social issues will still be permitted from non-restricted sources so long as posts refrain from advocating for/against candidates, elections or legislative proposals.

Google, not to be outdone, announced on November 20 that it would likewise be curtailing how political candidates and organizations are allowed to advertise on its platform moving forward. The new policy, which will take effect on January 6, 2020, does not outright ban certain groups from making political ads like Twitter does, but instead seeks to limits targeted election messaging by political organizations and candidates to three general categories of age, gender and location (down to the postal code level) in the US. This shift in permissible targeting categories contrasts with Google’s current advertising policies, which allows political ad targeting to specific audiences using personal user information such as political affiliation and voting records. Google’s new policy will also prohibit ads containing demonstrably false claims or misleading information that have the potential to undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process. Examples of prohibited ads provided by company officials in this context include communications that falsely claimed that a candidate has died or ads that gave the wrong date for an election, but it is not clear how much further this false content screening mechanism will stretch.  Google does claim, however, that its new policies will not attempt to regulate the veracity of ads containing standard political speech on which opposing political sides may disagree.

While Facebook has refrained from implementing an outright ban on political ads, the company unveiled more stringent disclosure rules for political communications in September. Industry insiders are expecting the company to join Twitter and Google in the near future, however. These self-regulatory efforts by America’s Silicon Valley technology giants are being closely watched by lawmakers and regulators at the federal and state levels as government officials weigh whether and how to wade into the fray over political speech on the Internet. It remains to be seen how effective these self-imposed measures will be at deterring foreign and other bad actors from spreading political disinformation as the first presidential primaries of the 2020 election cycle draw near. The Dentons Political Law Team will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as necessary.

Impeachment on a Page – Week of November 25, 2019

As developments in the Trump impeachment inquiry continue to unfold, Dentons’ Public Policy group has created a quick reference guide to the current status of this fast-moving process. Enclosed please find “Impeachment on a Page” for the week of November 25, 2019.

Previous Updates

Impeachment on a Page – Week of November 11, 2019

Impeachment on a Page – Week of November 4, 2019

Impeachment on a Page – Week of October 29, 2019

Impeachment on a Page – Week of October 22, 2019

Impeachment on a Page – Week of October 16, 2019