The House Committee on Natural Resources is seeking additional information from leadership at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) concerning the organization’s relationship with Chinese officials. In a letter dated June 5 and addressed to Rhea Suh, president, the committee expressed concern that NRDC’s need to maintain access with Chinese officials has influenced domestic policies in the U.S. and “may require compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).”
FARA requires individuals and entities that act at the request of a foreign principal or that are directly or indirectly “supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign principal” to register with the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ). The letter, signed by Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), requests:
* Documents that show NRDC’s date of registration as an agent of a foreign principal;
* If NRDC, and related subsidiaries, have not registered as agents, explanations as to why FARA does not apply;
* All documents and communications with DoJ relating to FARA registration;
* Documents signifying transactions or contributions between NRDC or related entities with entities or individuals associated with Chinese official, national, or business interests; and,
* Organizational policies and procedures aimed at complying with FARA.
The documents requested are to be submitted by June 12. In the letter, the committee voiced concern regarding perceived NRDC self-censorship and refraining from criticism of Chinese environmental policies while taking a more adversarial approach domestically, particularly under the Trump administration. Chinese officials seek to co-opt American influencers to promote a pro-China narrative and reports of poor air quality and other environmental issues undermine the nation’s government, per the committee.
“The Committee is concerned about the NRDC’s role in aiding China’s perception management efforts with respect to pollution control and its international standing on environmental issues in was that may be detrimental to the United States,” the letter reads. “The NRDC’s relationship with China has many of the criteria identified by U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement as putting an entity at risk of being influenced or coerced by foreign interests.”
An NRDC spokesperson said via an email with The NonProfit Times that the organization would not comment beyond a statement by Bob Deans, director of strategic engagement. Deans, in the statement, said the NRDC solutions are grounded in science, public policy, and U.S. law and that it works toward U.S. interests in ensuring that Americans and future generations are protected from pollution.
“As the most populous country on Earth, China has much to do with the kind of world the next generation will inherit, in our country and around the world,” Deans wrote. “We’re proud of our work, in China and elsewhere, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone, and we look forward to discussing that work with Chairman Bishop and the committee.”
FARA, as previously reported, dates back to 1938 when U.S. officials were concerned about Nazi propaganda’s potential domestic influence. Noncompliance is met with criminal penalties. The act’s broad language has made it cumbersome to apply, leading to poor enforcement. The law has reportedly been used by nations such as Russia, Ukraine, and Venezuela as justification for chilling cross-border philanthropy and civil services.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) introduced corresponding pieces of legislation in October 2017 aimed toward improving FARA enforcement and administration. The House bill was marked up by House Judiciary Committee in January and the bills currently sit before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, per Congress.gov.
Sector leaders have raised concerns about upping FARA enforcement without narrowing its definition of political activity, which extends beyond traditional lobbying and can include activities such as public outreach. Douglas Rutzen, president and CEO of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), reiterated in an email response to the NRDC situation that the 1938 law remains vague. Such broadness, he said, enables politicians to target nonprofits that they disfavor. Reform is necessary to depoliticize FARA.
“The Committee seems concerned that a nonprofit takes one approach to advance its mission in the United States and another approach in China,” he said. “It’s dangerous precedent for Congress to seek to influence these sorts of internal, organizational decisions. This could have a corrosive effect on the independence of the nonprofit sector.”