Political consultant confronts Justice Department official at forum

Sam Patten, the political consultant who last week was sentenced to three years probation on charges that stemmed from Robert Mueller’s investigation, confronted a senior Justice Department official at a forum held by a Washington think tank Wednesday.

Speaking during the question and answer portion of a conference that centered on the foreign lobbying law that he admitted to violating, Patten introduced himself and presented a hypothetical situation that mirrored his own case to a panel that included John Demers, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

“My name is Sam Patten and I believe I’m the ninth conviction under FARA in American history, or at least post-war history,” Patten said, referring to the Foreign Agents Registration Act — the decades-old law that regulates foreign influence in the US.

Patten pleaded guilty last year to a criminal charge that he helped draft op-eds in US media for a Ukrainian oligarch ahead of an election there and arranged government meetings — acts that he should have registered under FARA to carry out. On Wednesday, at the event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, he pressed the panel with a question that appeared to apply elements of his own case to a hypothetical situation involving pro-Ukrainian opinion pieces issued by think tanks funded by political candidates in the country.

Application of the FARA law to non-profit organizations can be vague. Patten was accused of operating without the proper registration while working for a political consulting business he shared with a Russian also investigated by Mueller, Konstantin Kilimnik. Patten also admitted to using a straw purchaser to provide Trump inaugural tickets to Kilimnik and a Ukrainian oligarch, and he helped the Justice Department following his plea.

Demers did not respond to Patten’s question, and Robert Kelner, an election and political law attorney on the panel, suggested the law could have been applied the same way in the hypothetical situation as it was in Patten’s real-world drama.

“A threshold question is whether there’s agency for a foreign government or a foreign political party,” Kelner said. “You can have activity by a US non-profit that involves US elections or foreign elections but it’s not necessarily on behalf of a foreign principal, but if you do have evidence of agency, generally speaking, it is likely to trigger the statute.”

Kelner has played his own part in the Mueller investigation, which looked into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election as well as Ukrainian money flowing toward President Donald Trump’s former campaign staffers.

Kelner is one of the defense attorneys for Michael Flynn, the highest-ranked former government official charged by Mueller. After pleading guilty to lying to investigators, Trump’s first national security adviser cooperated with investigators on a foreign lobbying-related case, where his former business partner was charged with illegally working for Turkey in the US.

Earlier in the conference, Demers called FARA an “elegant solution to a difficult problem” and said the Justice Department had “refocused” on it after a 2017 inspector general report and the violations uncovered in the special counsel investigation.

“We were certainly driven by an inspector general’s report that outlined the deficiencies on our enforcement of the statute and then also by what we saw in the context of doing investigations as related to the 2016 elections and the pervasiveness of foreign influence in that case in our democratic process,” Demers said.

Demers also explained the rationale behind the DOJ’s request that certain media organizations, including the Russian state-funded network RT, register as foreign agents under the law.

“We have to have an evidentiary basis to say, when you act, would-be-reporter, you’re actually acting at the direction of your government and you don’t have an independent journalistic ethos that we think of when we look at a reporter,” Demers said.

“In fact, not labeling you as a foreign agent is misleading because you’re presenting yourself to the American people as somebody who’s independent and thinking your own thoughts but you’re not, you’re getting your thoughts from a foreign government,” he said.

CNN’s Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.