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RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE SUNLIGHT FOUNDATION TO THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE REGARDING THE FOREIGN AGENTS REGISTRATION ACT APRIL

L 8, 2014
The Sunlight Foundations work with the Foreign Agents Registration Act: Sunlight is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses technology to make the government more open, responsive, and transparent. One of our major areas of focus is domestic and foreign lobbying. Sunlight, in particular developer Lindsay Young, has built tools around Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) data.1 These projects are empowering the public to track foreign influence on American politics. Through this work, Sunlight has developed significant expertise in the strengths and weaknesses of the current disclosure process, and we appreciate the opportunity to develop a collaborative relationship with the Department of Justice on the FARA e-filing system. FARA goals: 1) Implement a new, modernized FARA collection and disclosure system that collects and releases detailed, structured data. 2) Until a modernized filing system can be implemented, Sunlight recommends a series of specific and simple reforms including: allowing or requiring filing data as spreadsheets; converting submitted information into structured data; fixing the bulk data output function; encouraging agents to file online; improving data standardization; and providing informational materials online. More detail on each proposed reform is below. 3) FARA should be reformed to close the Lobbying Disclosure Act loophole, which allows FARA agents to disclose less by filing as domestic lobbyists.

Sunlight previously developed http://foreignlobbying.org with ProPublica, and is currently finishing development of and releasing http://foreign.influenceexplorer.com/, a new tool for searching data regarding foreign influence.

The eight specific reforms below would be low-cost ways to greatly improve efficiency within the Department of Justice, increase usability of the data for the public and groups like Sunlight, have negligible impact on the filers, and better accomplish the electronic filing goals set out by FARA and President Obama.

Problems with the current system: 1) The current e-filing system contributes to the accidental release of sensitive personal information, including bank account and routing numbers and an judicial notice of death.2 When these mistakes are identified, they are removed, but there is no public notice given about the leaked information. Solution: Allow or require filing data as spreadsheets or through online forms. Spreadsheets reduce the likelihood that personal information is accidentally published online because they can be easily searched and information within them can be marked as sensitive. When sensitive information is published, the vulnerable party and the public should have notice. 2) The Department of Justice has inadvertently submitted inaccurate reports to Congress. In working with the documents online, Sunlight has discovered instances where the Department of Justice has miscalculated aggregate spending subject to FARA.
Solution: Require and/or convert submitted data into spreadsheets. Spreadsheets allow automated totaling, which will save both the Department of Justice and the publics resources, and greatly reduce the possibility of inaccurate information from being reported to Congress.

3) The current uploading system requires submissions in either image or PDF formats. These formats frustrate use of the data, making them harder to search and impossible for computers to synthesize in bulk. Further, there are volumes of data that were clearly composed in spreadsheet format, by a program like Excel, which were then converted into a much less usable format, like PDF. Unfortunately, even tools that convert images and PDFs into text are inadequate because they often produce gibberish, especially when synthesizing handwriting.

An administrative notice of death was originally appended to the following filing, and was subsequently removed without notice: http://www.fara.gov/docs/6116-Supplemental-Statement-20140327-4.pdf. The original version is appended here and labeled Att. 1.

Solutions: Allow or require filing data as spreadsheets, and eventually implement an e-filing system that captures structured data at the point of disclosure, like e-filing through forms. 4) The bulk data output function in document search is broken . It currently exports a CSV file that appears to utilize hyperlinking, but through a process that is evidently not supported by the CSV file format, rendering the downloadable data spreadsheet useless to the public. 3 Solution: Include the hyperlink in the spreadsheet itself, or output the data in a form that supports hyperlinks.
5) Filers are submitting handwritten forms to the Department of Justice despite having access to a word processor. Handwritten forms are extremely difficult to synthesize automatically, and they drain the resources of both the Department of Justice and the public. Solution: Encourage or require filers to file online whenever possible. This will save the Department of Justice and the publics resources. 7) The e-filing system lacks adequate standards. For instance, certain filings include foreign currencies, while others report only the last names of people with whom agents have met. Solution: Require standardization of data, for instance the currency in which spending is reported and the use of full names of people included in the filing. This will greatly improve the quality of the data retrieved from filings, and pose a negligible burden from the filer.4 8) Not all of the informational materials electronically filed are electronically available. Solution: The FARA Registration Unit should provide electronic access to all informational materials. The Registration Unit accepts informational materials electronically, so posting these submissions to the FARA website would require minimal effort and would dramatically increase transparency.

Examples, with cited filings attached:

To view the problem, go to http://www.fara.gov/search.html, search for documents, and then click Click here for DOWNLOADABLE DATA spreadsheet.
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One example is Exhibit D of the following filing, which uses German currencies: http://www.fara.gov/docs/616Supplemental-Statement-20131220-12.pdf. Appended here and labeled Att. 2.

Because of the file formats required by the FARA e-filing website, Sunlight had to physically cut and paste together the attached, 36-page filing by Akin Gump, even though it was originally
composed in a usable, spreadsheet format.5

In cases like Vivien Ravdin, the extremely poor quality of the filing indicates that the information was not filed online, despite being created with a word processor. The registrant has a website.6 The image quality is so poor on the most recent filing7 that image-to-text conversion of the document reports back that Ravdin received SJ6.7S0.00 for the last six-month period.
Lindsay Young, a developer at Sunlight who focuses on the FARA e-filing system, has attempted to contact the Department of Justice three times in the past year in an attempt to fix the broken bulk data output function, which attempts to output hyperlink data through the CSV file format a function that this specific format does not support.8 Conclusion: The Sunlight Foundation is happy to be working with the Department of Justice in identifying and implementing much-needed reforms to the FARA e-filing system. As the Department of Justice works toward implementing a modernized system that supports structured data filings, like spreadsheets, and publishes data as such, the aforementioned reforms are critical steps toward ensuring that filings are accessible, usable, and in conformity with FARA and President Obamas e-filing and openness goals.

5 6 7 8

http://www.fara.gov/docs/3492-Supplemental-Statement-20130130-19.pdf. Appended here and labeled Att. 3. http://www.ravdin.com/ http://www.fara.gov/docs/5630-Supplemental-Statement-20140225-20.pdf. Appended here and labeled Att. 4.

To view the problem, go to http://www.fara.gov/search.html, search for documents, and then click Click here for DOWNLOADABLE DATA spreadsheet.

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