WASHINGTON — It was the summer of 1986, and Paul Manafort, then a top-tier Washington lobbyist, counted no fewer than 10 foreign governments and political groups as clients. He directed American media campaigns for them, met with officials in the White House, State Department and Congress on their behalf and strategized about how to sway United States policy toward their interests.
What he did not do was disclose much of his activity to the Justice Department, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the law governing lobbying for foreign interests.
Federal investigators confronted him about those omissions, ordered him to correct his filings and warned him not to repeat the same mistakes.
Thirty-two years later, Mr. Manafort’s undisclosed work for foreigners is in investigators’ cross hairs again. This time, they are being far less forgiving.
In a criminal trial scheduled to begin Monday, federal prosecutors will argue that for nine years starting in 2005, Mr. Manafort ran a lobbying campaign in Washington on behalf of pro-Russia political forces in Ukraine without disclosing his activities to the Justice Department as required. When confronted, the indictment alleges, he lied to department officials.
If a jury agrees, those crimes could substantially add to prison time Mr. Manafort already faces from his conviction on bank and tax fraud charges by a federal jury in Northern Virginia last month. He also faces charges of obstruction of justice and money laundering, but hiding and lying about his lobbying work is at the heart of the indictment.
The case has put a spotlight on the foreign lobbying law, known as FARA. Once viewed by lobbyists as an outdated statute that could be evaded with little consequence, it has now been applied aggressively in a number of high-profile criminal cases, sending waves of concern through Washington’s influence industry, and a rush by many to register their lobbying activity.
At a time when foreign governments, corporations and powerful individuals are employing more sophisticated campaigns to sway policymakers and public opinion in the United States, the crackdown has also prompted efforts in Congress to give the statute more teeth.
Mr. Manafort, 69, is now the main character in the biggest lobbying scandal in Washington since Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist for Native American tribes, pleaded guilty to fraud more than a decade ago. While public attention is fixed on the central question of the special counsel inquiry — Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — the cases against former Trump aides so far have revealed as much if not more about the industry of foreign lobbyists.
In the five decades before Mr. Manafort was indicted last year, only seven people had been criminally charged with violating the statute. The United States attorneys’ own criminal resource manual notes that the Justice Department has typically enforced the law by warning wayward lobbyists, not prosecuting them. A 2014 internal department report said prosecutors shied away from FARA indictments because they feared it was too difficult to obtain a conviction.
Now, almost entirely stemming from the work of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, the law has become a prominent prosecution tool. Three people have pleaded guilty to either violating FARA or lying about lobbying that should have been reported under FARA: Rick Gates, President Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman and Mr. Manafort’s right-hand man; Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser; and Sam Patten, a longtime Republican lobbyist who worked with Mr. Manafort.
Prosecutors under Mr. Mueller also relied heavily on FARA in charging 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies with illegally using social media to influence the 2016 election.
FARA has not gotten so much attention since it was passed in 1938 and used to go after pro-Nazi propagandists.
“It’s probably a shock to the Washington system, but as someone who has to comply with the law every day, I can say these aren’t crimes of ignorance,” said Barry Bennett, who heads the lobbying firm Avenue Strategies and who worked with Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates on the Trump campaign. “These are crimes of convenience.”
Lobbyists have taken heed: Last year the number of new FARA registrants jumped 50 percent from the previous year.
Congress is also considering whether to strengthen the statute. A bill sponsored by Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, would close a major loophole by requiring lobbyists hired by foreign commercial interests to file FARA reports.
Currently, lobbyists representing foreign commercial interests register only with Congress, which requests minimal information, while those who represent foreign “principals” working for the benefit of foreign governments or political parties register with the Justice Department. The dual disclosure regimes create a huge gray area because in many countries, including Russia and Ukraine, the line between commercial and government interests is heavily blurred.
Mr. Grassley’s bill would also give the Justice Department more authority to demand information from lobbyists without resorting to a grand jury subpoena. Although the measure appears stalled for the moment, Christopher DeLacy, a Washington lawyer who has studied the FARA law, said “it’s a fairly safe bet that Congress is eventually going to take some sort of action.”
Unless his criminal charges are resolved through plea negotiations, Mr. Manafort’s coming trial will be the most public test of the law in recent history.
Coming on the heels of his conviction on financial fraud charges, the trial in federal court in the District of Columbia will examine charges that Mr. Manafort was the hidden hand behind a multiyear campaign to portray Viktor F. Yanukovych and the political forces behind him in Ukraine — all allies of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — as pro-Western backers of democratic and economic reforms. Mr. Manafort was paid more than $60 million by Ukrainian oligarchs to help orchestrate Mr. Yanukovych’s rise to Ukraine’s presidency and to maintain his grip on power for four years, before he was toppled and fled to Russia.
Prosecutors intend to show that Mr. Manafort hired lobbyists who met with members of Congress; helped organize meetings between top Ukrainian and American government officials, including a 2010 meeting in Washington between Mr. Yanukovych and President Barack Obama; and promoted the placement of articles and interviews in major American newspapers, including The New York Times.
The Manafort scandal already has touched a bevy of well-known lobbyists, lawyers and politicians who were paid millions to help him promote his Ukrainian clients. They include: Gregory B. Craig, Mr. Obama’s former White House counsel; Vin Weber, a Republican former congressman from Minnesota; Tony Podesta, a Washington lobbyist whose brother, John D. Podesta, headed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign; and Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy. Several cases have been referred to federal prosecutors in New York.
Kevin Downing, Mr. Manafort’s lead defense lawyer, hopes to show that the FARA law is so vague and its requirements so confusing that Mr. Manafort cannot be blamed for violating it. He also wants to argue that Mr. Manafort was targeted only because he was the president’s campaign manager.
Defense lawyers may try to elicit testimony that in July 2014, Mr. Manafort was interviewed by F.B.I. agents about the same lobbying work that now figures in his indictment.
The agents were investigating allegations of fraud by the administration of Mr. Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine. Although they queried Mr. Manafort about his payments from Ukrainian oligarchs, they never asked whether he had registered under FARA, according to people familiar with that inquiry.
Not until September 2016 did the F.B.I. open a FARA investigation targeting Mr. Manafort. By that time, his payments from Ukraine had become national news and forced him to step down as Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman.
“You can’t exclude the politics,” Mr. Downing told Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in a pretrial hearing last week. “Paul Manafort is here because he was President Trump’s campaign manager.”
Because courts have made it very difficult to argue selective prosecution, Judge Jackson is unlikely to allow him to head down that path.
Whatever happens in the courtroom, the lobbying industry views the case as a giant neon sign that FARA can no longer be dismissed as toothless.
David Laufman, who oversaw FARA as chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section from 2014 until earlier this year, said he believes the days of lax enforcement are over.
“I don’t think this genie is going to be put back into the bottle,” he said.
Follow Sharon LaFraniere on Twitter: @SharonLNYT.
Kenneth P. Vogel and Rachel Shorey contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.