When former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman registered to lobby late last year for ZTE Corp., he made one thing clear: He was not “advocating” for the Chinese telecom giant but, rather, conducting an “independent assessment” of national security concerns that the company’s products could pose in the U.S.
Lieberman, now senior counsel at Kasowitz Benson Torres, told Politico he planned to register to lobby but wouldn’t actually lobby. Rather, his job would be “listening and asking questions,” he said, adding that he didn’t expect to be “giving ZTE’s point of view.”
Lieberman and two other lawyers at Kasowitz Benson Torres—Nicholas Rendino and Clarine Nardi Riddle, his former chief of staff at the Senate—would stress that point in their lobbying disclosure. The disclosure marked the first time that Lieberman, the former Connecticut independent, registered to lobby under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
“Although Lieberman/[Kasowitz Benson Torres] will not be advocating for ZTE, we have decided to register in the interest of transparency and caution because we will be talking with Members and other covered officials as part of the assessment we are conducting,” the lobbying disclosure stated.
Lieberman’s disclosure put a fresh spotlight on the blurry lines that define reportable lobbying activities in the Washington influence market. The filing comes in an atmosphere of heightened scrutiny on lobbying for foreign government and corporate clients and escalating trade tension with China. Lieberman wasn’t reached for comment Thursday.
“His mission is to listen, assess and then make recommendations to ZTE on how to address U.S. national security concerns. While these activities are not associated with the common understanding of ‘lobbying,’ the Lobbying and Disclosure Act can be interpreted to require registration because he is meeting with ‘covered officials’ under the statute,” Riddle, who leads Kasowitz Benson’s government affairs practice, told Center for Responsive Politics. “Out of an abundance of caution, Senator Lieberman will register under the LDA so that there will be no question about his and ZTE’s transparency and compliance.”
Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department imposed a ban on U.S. exports to ZTE after determining that the telecom giant had failed to comply with an earlier settlement over violating sanctions against Iran and North Korea. The ban, which prevented ZTE from acquiring parts and software from American companies, was later lifted after ZTE agreed to pay a $1 billion penalty and allow compliance monitors to oversee the company for a decade.
A Covington & Burling partner who was reportedly in line to be the ZTE compliance monitor was rejected after U.S. officials discovered his name on a “Never Trump” letter. Commerce appointed Roscoe Howard, a white-collar defender at Barnes & Thornburg, as the compliance monitor.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the first high-profile Democrat to formally enter the 2020 presidential race, on Wednesday criticized Lieberman over his new role.
“ZTE is a giant foreign telecom company that’s close with the Chinese govt. They’ve violated serious U.S. sanctions on Iran & N. Korea. Their lobbyists keep blocking accountability. And today former Senator @JoeLieberman joined them,” Warren tweeted. “Should that be legal? No.”
Reuters reported last month that the White House is looking at a new executive order that would prohibit U.S. companies from using ZTE equipment. U.S. officials have eyed ZTE warily, warning that the company could open opportunities for the Chinese government to conduct espionage.
Lieberman has been tasked with talking with U.S. officials to assess the national security concerns and provide ZTE with a report outlining “appropriate measures that may be taken to resolve/or ameliorate them,” the lobbying disclosure states.
The job description and ZTE’s close ties to the Chinese government have raised questions about whether a disclosure from Kasowitz Benson was required under a more stringent federal law: the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
FARA requires U.S.-based lobbyists to disclose their advocacy for foreign governments and other overseas clients. Passed in 1938 to uncover Nazi propaganda campaigns, the law requires fuller disclosures of lobbying work, including copies of materials presented to U.S. officials and agreements revealing the sums paid by foreign principals.
Lieberman in 2013 registered as a foreign agent in connection with his work for Basit Igtet, a Zurich-based entrepreneur a bid for political office in Libya, his native country.
Foreign corporations can disclose their advocacy under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the statute covering the vast majority of federal-level advocacy in the United States, unless the company is effectively doing the bidding its country’s government.
“This can be a factual question—in effect, is the principal a foreign corporation acting on its own behalf or, on the other hand, is the foreign corporation really an alter ego of the foreign government?” said Wiley Rein partner Daniel Pickard. “If it’s the latter, then the LDA exception may not be applicable.”
Within ZTE’s own lobbying corps, different approaches have been taken.
A Hogan Lovells team including former Sen. Norm Coleman—along with the firms Appo-G, Black Diamond Strategies and American Continental Group—registered last year to lobby for ZTE under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. But Mercury Public Affairs, hired by Hogan Lovells to advocate for ZTE, registered as a foreign agent. Mercury Public Affairs and Coleman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.