Watchdog group wants Lieberman to register as foreign agent for ZTE

An ethics watchdog group urged the Department of Justice to investigate former Sen. Joe Lieberman’s work on behalf of the Chinese telecom firm ZTE to determine whether he must register as a foreign agent.

The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint on Tuesday alleging that Lieberman appears to be exploiting a loophole in the reporting requirements for those working on behalf of foreign entities.

Lieberman registered as a lobbyist for ZTE last month, but told Politico at the time that he wouldn’t actually be doing any lobbying for the company. Instead, he said he would be performing an independent national security assessment of ZTE’s goods.

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The CLC argued this should trigger a requirement under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for Lieberman to register. The law provides exemptions for those who register as lobbyists.

“Therefore, by Lieberman’s own admission, he is not eligible for the [Lobbying Disclosure Act] exemption, and his voluntary LDA submission cannot change his registration obligations under FARA,” the group wrote in its letter. “Lieberman should not be permitted to evade FARA’s more robust reporting requirements by relying on the LDA exemption, while at the same time asserting that he is not lobbying on ZTE’s behalf.”

Lieberman, in an emailed statement to The Hill, said there was no merit to the complaint, adding that he had made sure to comply with both LDA and FARA requirements.

"I understand that there are those who are going to unfairly criticize just because it fits their own personal agenda to do so, but I undertook this assignment because I see it as really important work to ensure that one of the world’s largest and most important telecommunications companies complies with U.S. cyber and national security concerns and devises means to address them," he said. "If this can lead to greater understanding, trust-building and the removal of national security threats to the United States, then we will have accomplished a report of value."

ZTE tapped the former Democrat-turned-Independent to help repair its image in Washington, where lawmakers suspect that it has close ties to the Chinese government and constitutes a national security threat. Because of those concerns it has effectively been barred from doing business in the U.S.

The firm has also been at the center of trade tensions between the U.S. and China. Last year, the Commerce Department slapped sanctions on the firm that banned American companies from doing any business with it. The administration later reversed course.

— Updated 5:16 p.m.