Abramoff Pleads Guilty to Criminal Lobbying Violation in Landmark Prosecution

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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.