Sidley Austin reveals work for Chinese surveillance firm under foreign agents law

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  • Law firm has earned $7.4 million in lobbying fees
  • Lobbying previously disclosed under a different U.S. law

(Reuters) – Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin has registered its lobbying work for the U.S. subsidiary of Chinese video surveillance company Hikvision under a U.S. foreign agents law, revealing about $7.4 million in fees since 2018.

Sidley, one of the country’s top firms by revenue, said on Monday that its Oct. 14 registration for California-headquartered Hikvision USA Inc was done “solely in response to a request” from the U.S. Justice Department.

The firm had earlier disclosed its lobbying through a separate federal law in 2018 after it was retained then by Hikvision.

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The Justice Department declined to comment about why it asked Sidley now to register its lobbying under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which offers a public window into advocacy for some international clients. The firm also did not provide further comment about the timing of its registration.

Foreign-agent registration has come under scrutiny, as the U.S. in recent years ramped up its monitoring of influence campaigns in the U.S. Last week, casino tycoon Steve Wynn defeated the DOJ’s lawsuit in Washington, D.C., federal court to force him to register as a foreign agent of China.

Michael Borden, who leads Sidley’s government strategies group and who registered as a foreign agent for Hikvision, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

A representative from Hikvision did not immediately respond to a similar message. The company, which conducts research and development and manufactures video services products, employs more than 25,000 people worldwide.

The Financial Times reported in May, citing sources familiar with discussions, that the Biden administration was considering the imposition of human-rights related sanctions against Hikvision.

In a statement then, Hikvision said “the mentioned potential action by the U.S. Government remains to be verified.” The statement added: “We think any such sanction should be based on credible evidence and due process, and look forward to being treated fairly and unbiasedly.”

In June 2021, President Joe Biden banned U.S. investment in Hikvision and other Chinese companies with alleged ties to defense or surveillance technology sectors. The move expanded a Trump-era order.

Sidley’s foreign-agent disclosure said the firm’s lobbying work focused on “prohibitions on certain video surveillance equipment in the National Defense Authorization Act and other potential legislation and administrative action affecting Hikvision’s sale of video surveillance equipment.”

The firm first registered its lobbying in 2018 under the U.S. Lobbying Disclosure Act, which is administered by the U.S. Congress.

Law firms and others are allowed to use that registration format for a representation, according to the DOJ, that “is not on behalf of a foreign government or foreign political party.”

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Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Johnathon Badon