July 22, 2011

The statement on the Web site of D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) was straightforward: “He has . . . represented various foreign governments.” A July 7 e-mail from me to Brown’s chief of staff, Amy Bellanca, was equally direct: “Please identify those governments, including the periods in which they were represented by Brown.”

In an e-mail reply that day, Bellanca said Brown told her he would contact me.

I waited. Two weeks later, still no response.

My inquiry was not an idle request.

This is a matter of government transparency, and it’s important enough that there is a federal law that may or may not apply to Brown’s activities — the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which was enacted in 1938 to require individuals “acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”

The law’s purpose is unambiguous: to help the government “and the American people” evaluate the statements and activities of the registrants in “light of their functions as foreign agents.”

There is nothing unusual about Americans acting as agents of foreign governments; people have done so for decades. Most have performed honorably and followed federal law. Likewise, there’s no suggestion of anything untoward in Brown’s representation of “various foreign governments.”

But there are reasons for foreign registration and disclosure laws, as shown by Post articles this week about the head of a District-based nonprofit group being arrested for allegedly using the group as a conduit to funnel money into campaign contributions and propaganda efforts in behalf of a foreign interest — in this case, Pakistan’s spy service. U.S. prosecutors have charged two men in the case with failing to register as foreign agents.

After hearing nothing from Brown, I called him Wednesday. Brown’s initial response: “I can’t talk about clients that I had at former firms.” Reminded about the FARA provisions, Brown said The Post has plenty of employees. “Why don’t you send someone to [the FARA Registration Unit in the Justice Department] to check the records?”

He added that it would take time to research his records to determine which governments he represented.

I informed Brown that I would contact him the next day after he had a chance to review his files. He said he would not be ready by then. “I’ll get to it when I get to it,” Brown told me.

Pressed for a deadline, Brown said, “It’s probably not going to be this week; it’s probably going to be awhile.”

While he refused to identify all of the governments that he claims to have represented, Brown did, when pressed, cite three foreign interests that he represented: “Ghana, when [Jerry] Rawlings was president,” he said. Brown identified a second client as Nigeria’s National Council on Privatization, which he said was “a quasi-government organization.” In addition, Brown said he once represented the government of Benin.

Brown steadfastly declined to disclose any other foreign governments or foreign principals that he represented. And he would not discuss details of his activities in behalf of foreign interests.

In fact, he took exception to my inquiry, complaining that only The Post’s editorial page and this columnist seem to have an interest in his outside activities.

He asked why such inquiries are directed at an African American council member “when [white council members whom he named off the record] have outside interests that involve the city government?”

Brown quickly added that he didn’t like to bring race into the picture.

I reminded Brown that he is the only council member who has claimed to have represented foreign governments — which is the focus of my inquiry.

After the interview, Brown called back to say that he has “not represented any foreign governments while on the D.C. Council.”

Given this week’s news stories, Michael Brown, former Democrat and now a declared independent running for reelection in 2012, may wish to bone up on his past undertakings in behalf of foreign interests, if any.

There are probably one, two or perhaps even more D.C. voters, in addition to this columnist, who may want to know who his foreign clients were, what he did for them and how much was he paid for doing it.

kingc@washpost.com