By Karen Freifeld and Suzanne Barlyn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A former prosecutor for Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation has been tapped to step up the U.S. government's enforcement of a rarely prosecuted law on foreign lobbying, a senior Justice Department official said on Wednesday.
Brandon Van Grack, a prosecutor in the Justice Department's national security division who was on Mueller's team until August, will lead the effort to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the official said.
"We have increased our focus into FARA prosecutions," John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for the national security division, told lawyers at the American Bar Association's annual white collar crime conference, held this year in New Orleans.
Demers said Van Grack would lead a team of attorneys and administrative staff whose mission was to make sure the FARA law, which requires disclosure of lobbying on behalf of foreign interests, is more aggressively enforced.
Demers portrayed the move as a "big shift" in strategy for the Justice Department, which has only prosecuted a handful of FARA cases since the law was enacted in 1938 to address concerns over Nazi propaganda.
Van Grack was one of the lead prosecutors on Mueller's cases against former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump. Both prosecutions involved FARA violations.
Demers said the decision to ramp up enforcement was influenced by the events surrounding the presidential election in 2016 and afterward, including the case of Manafort who earned tens of millions of dollars covertly lobbying for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.
"I think that it opened everyone's eyes to how much different foreign governments tried to influence our political discourse in a covert manner," Demers said.
One focal point may be Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies say waged a disinformation campaign to try and sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election for Donald Trump.
Demers pointed to the FARA registration of RT America, one of four Russian-linked media companies that bowed to Justice Department pressure and registered in late 2017 and early 2018.
"The goal of all this registration - it's transparency," Demers said.
Demers also warned that law firms should take FARA registration seriously, citing the example of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
In January, the firm reached a settlement with federal prosecutors agreeing to turn over $4.6 million and admitted it should have registered under FARA for a 2012 report aimed at discrediting a former prime minister of Ukraine.
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Suzanne Barlyn in New Orleans and Nathan Layne in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)