Public appearances on behalf of the MEK by such people as former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell and former Obama national security adviser James L. Jones had already sparked an investigation by the Treasury Department into whether payments of tens of thousands of dollars to some of them violated anti-terrorism laws.
In recent weeks, new questions have been raised about whether private meetings, conference calls and other contact with officials at the State Department and elsewhere in the administration over the past year require the advocates’ registration as lobbyists or agents of a foreign entity.
Under federal law, advocates for foreign organizations are required to register as lobbyists and provide details about their clients and income. But the MEK supporters have not registered, which would require disclosing the amounts they are paid and the identities of officials with whom they meet.
The supporters argue that they are acting legitimately to facilitate U.S. policy decisions, which could make them exempt from registration requirements.
But scholars of lobbying regulations say the contacts with administration officials easily meet the definition of lobbying under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a law that has sometimes led to criminal charges.
“The law applies to anyone engaged in political or lobbying activity — or even propaganda — on behalf of a foreign ‘principal,’ a term that is defined broadly,” said David Cole, a professor and expert on criminal and constitutional law at Georgetown University Law School. “It’s a very low bar.”
The new questions are the latest challenge for the MEK, which has been listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization since 1997 and was linked to the deaths of six Americans in the 1970s.
Trying to reshape image
The MEK has been campaigning for years to get off the terrorist list, including buying advertisements in The Washington Post and other publications. A federal appeals court has given Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton until October to make a decision on whether to remove the group.
At the same time, the MEK and its advocates have been clashing with the Iraqi government over efforts to relocate 3,300 MEK members living in exile at a former Iraqi military base since the mid-1980s.
The MEK has enlisted some of the biggest names in U.S. politics and national security. In addition to Giuliani, Rendell and Jones, the group’s advocates have included former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former Joint Chiefs chairman Hugh Shelton, former U.N. ambassadors John Bolton and Bill Richardson, and Mitchell Reiss, a former State Department official who has been among Republican president candidate Mitt Romney’s top foreign policy advisers since 2008.