Foreign countries spend millions each year to gain influence in the US. Find out where

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The Sunlight Foundation's new Foreign Influence Explorer, seen here in a screenshot, allows users to see where foreign lobbying money is coming from... and where it goes.


Sunlight Foundation

When it comes to spending money to gain favor in the US, foreign countries and businesses spend millions.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

We know this thanks to the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Passed in 1938, the FARA, as its known, was originally used to monitor Nazi-era propaganda. Today, it helps us see just how much money countries spend lobbying in the US.

The Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit government transparency group, waded through thousands of public records to create its Foreign Influence Explorer tool. Essentially, it's an online database that let's you explore where foreign money comes from and where it goes. Bill Allison, the editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, says his organization capitalized on the stringent disclosures mandated by law. "Unlike domestic lobbyists that will put down on a lobbying disclosure form that they lobbied, say, Congress on taxes, foreign agents have to file detailed information about their activities," he says. "You can kind of see, in a way that you can't with domestic lobbying forms, how a lobbying effort is constructed."

Basically, you can understand and get a sense of how the sausage gets made in Washington.

It's fascinating to explore the tool. You start at the global level and can zoom in on a specific country and see the lobbying the country does in the US. Take a country at random, say Chile. You can find out the group Tourism Promotion of Chile spent more than $320,000. Then you go in closer and see that the group Spring, O’Brien & Co., Inc. represents Tourism Promotion of Chile. Then you can see that Chile isn't the only country represented by the firm. Tourism minded folks from China, St. Vincent, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Morocco and Hong Kong all paid for work totaling $1,466,548.88 in 2013. A quick Google search shows you that Spring O'Brien is a PR firm in New York specializing in tourism and started by a former waiter at the Savoy.

It's cool stuff. It allows you to trace the footsteps left by financial transactions.

A lot of the money does go toward tourism. But one of the biggest spenders was Deutsche Telecom, the German telecommunications giant. It spent a whopping $11.8 million lobbying. And they weren't promoting tourism. Allison suggests the spending relates to Deutsche’s failed 2011 merger of its T-Mobile USA subsidiary with AT&T. The Department of Justice sued to block the merger. Allison says the failed merger cost Deutsche Telecom plenty of time and money.

“So if they are going to get rid of their T-Mobile property, they are going to have to work with regulators,” he says. “What they want to do is make sure there is support in Congress to do it and they are not going to be shot down again.”

It’s cool stuff. It really allows you to see and infer why foreign companies and countries spend millions to lobby in the US.

This is third time the Sunlight Foundation created such a database. And there are always surprises. This year, Deutsche Telecom was the big surprise.

He says most countries we consider our friends save the money, as they already have long-standing diplomatic relations in the US. “And usually it's their diplomats that and their ambassadors that do this kind of work.”