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Contracts Between Hungarian Nonprofit and Christopher Rufo, Others, Raise Foreign Agent Concerns: Expert

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has long courted international conservative and far-right movements. Hatewatch obtained contracts between Hungarian U.S. conservative figures that suggest they should register as foreign agents under U.S. law.

Three right-wing ideologues signed contracts that may require they register as foreign agents for a Hungarian government-funded organization – and that the organization is possibly altering language in contracts to avoid this – according to a review of their contracts with the organization.

Christopher Rufo speaks on Jan. 25, 2023, in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times via Alamy)

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo, right-wing writer Michael O’Shea and Claremont Institute senior fellow Jeremy Carl signed contracts with the Hungarian government-funded nonprofit Batthyány Lajos Foundation (BLA), which maintains the Danube Institute (DI), a Hungarian think tank. The contracts are from 2022 and 2023.

These contracts require either a speech, media appearance, reports or – in the case of O’Shea – a minimum of two articles in U.S. or European media. They cover issues of migration, LBGTQ+ rights, critical race theory (CRT) and Hungary’s relations with regional allies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used all these issues to win influence with the international conservative and far-right movements.

The Justice Department (DOJ) website explains that FARA is a 1938 law requiring “agents of foreign principals” that engage “in political activities” to publicly disclose their “relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.” The law's purpose is to is “to promote transparency with respect to foreign influence within” the U.S. by informing the government and public of “the source of certain information from foreign agents intended to influence American public opinion, policy, and laws.”

Hatewatch shared the contracts with Josh Rosenstein, a partner at D.C. law firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, P.C., which advises clients on FARA compliance. Rosenstein said the “arrangements” between BLA and the U.S. figures “seem to raise significant FARA concerns.”

Rosenstein said the FARA Unit, which oversees enforcement of the law and is housed inside the Department of Justice, has recently focused on foreign nonprofits and domestic NGOs’ relationships with foreign entities. “Particularly given the focus that the Department of Justice has recently and will continue to have on foreign-based nonprofits and NGOs and think tanks,” Rosenstein said, the contracts seem “to fall directly in line with the Department’s enforcement priorities.”

The contracts between the U.S. figures and BLA came from a trove of 13 contracts Hatewatch obtained through a Hungarian public information request. Hatewatch then shared and reviewed the contracts with Átlátszó, a Hungarian investigative journalism outlet.

The other contracts deal with Canadian, Israeli, French and other U.S. figures. These do not appear to raise FARA concerns.

Two articles a month

Of the 13 contracts, Rufo and O’Shea signed one each, and Carl signed two. All the contracts refer to BLA as the “principal” and the other party as the “agent.”

The contract most likely to require FARA registration is between BLA and Michael O’Shea, according to Rosenstein. The contract between BLA and O’Shea says O’Shea “shall prepare at least two articles of at least 650 words per month, in particular on Hungarian family policy and Hungarian geopolitical topics, for American and European media.”

Rosenstein explained there are exceptions for FARA, including those engaged in commerce, academic researchers, lawyers and diplomats. But O’Shea’s example does not appear to qualify for these exemptions, he said.

O’Shea is a young writer who took part in the 2021 round of the Budapest Fellowship sponsored by the Hungary Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit. The Hungary Foundation’s 2022 tax filing shows the nonprofit made most of its money from assets and investments. The filing also shows the Hungary Foundation gave the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center considers an anti-immigrant hate group, a $118,000 grant in 2021 and 2022.

O’Shea’s “host institution” for the fellowship program was DI. O’Shea’s profile on the DI website says both the Hungary Foundation and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, another Hungary-funded nonprofit that pays far-right U.S. personalities for speeches, sponsored O’Shea in 2021 and 2022.

The document also states O’Shea must “prepare a study of at least 60,000 characters on the Polish election” to be made available to BLA by Dec. 31. Poland’s far-right Law and Justice party, which has been a regional ally for Fidesz since it won elections in 2015, suffered defeat in the 2023 national election.

The contract came into effect on June 1 and is active until Dec. 31. In that time, O’Shea has published articles on Hungarian and Polish issues in The Federalist and The American Spectator, conservative online magazines, and The National Interest, an outlet that conservative think tank the Center for the National Interest publishes.

O’Shea did not respond to a request for comment.

O’Shea makes $4,500 a month for his work, according to the contract.

Culture warrior

BLA hired Rufo, a conservative activist whom Politico described as Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “culture warrior,” to give two lectures on the “topics of critical race theory and LGBTQ propaganda.” The contract is not as explicit as O’Shea’s but could require FARA registration.

Rufo came to prominence for spearheading the right-wing crusade against inclusive education policies, critical race theory – a set of legal analysis asserting that racism is inherent to the U.S. legal system – and stoking anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. He gained further notoriety after DeSantis appointed him to the board of The New School following what some called a “takeover” of the liberal college.

Rufo’s contract ran from March 20 until April 18. It also directed him to give “interviews to be broadcast to the public, especially for Hungarian media, so primarily in the context of this.” Átlátszó confirmed to Hatewatch that the Hungarian language is similarly vague.

Rufo does not appear to speak Hungarian. He shared an interview on his YouTube page that Rod Dreher, another BLA fellow who experts believe should register for FARA, conducted. The interview appears to have been conducted during the term of the contract. On March 30, he published an article on his Substack called the “Budapest Diaries” that praised Orbán for establishing “constellation of right-leaning university programs, think tanks” and “research centers.” Rufo later wrote an article for Compact Magazine that praised the policies of the Orbán government.

Orbán has faced international criticism and protests for passing laws that critics say are meant to tamp down on dissent inside Hungary’s higher-education system. Orbán has called the criticisms “absurd.”

Rosenstein said FARA’s enforcement arm would be interested in these posts. “If a foreign principal asks him to do this” even if “the contract had expired,” then “that technically is regulated” activity, Rosenstein explained.

Rufo responded to Hatewatch’s request for comment on X, saying he “publicly announced” his “fellowship with the institute and disclosed this relationship in both of the pieces [he wrote about] Hungary, following standard journalistic practice.” He also said the DI had no editorial input on the pieces he wrote.

Rosenstein said that “if FARA applies,” agents who “disseminate propaganda” on behalf of foreign principals must label the propaganda with a “prominent disclaimer,” and a copy of the propaganda – now called “informational materials” under the law – must be filed with the Justice Department.

The contract shows Rufo received $35,000 for his work. 

Rufo further said in the post that if FARA applied to fellowship at DI, then “every left-wing professor, journalist, and academic who has done a visiting fellowship anywhere outside the United States should also be investigated by the Justice Department – a notion that would deeply damage the First Amendment.”

Rufo did not acknowledge that DI is funded by the Hungarian government and pays fellows to discuss Hungarian political policies.

An ‘example for the American right-wing’

Most of the contracts between BLA and the right-wing thinkers feature two columns of text, one in Hungarian and the other in English. In the 13 contracts, both sides read largely the same, according to Hatewatch and Átlátszó’s review. But the contracts say the Hungarian text prevails if there is “deviation.”

But BLA’s first contract with Carl, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute who focuses on immigration, multiculturalism and nationalism in the U.S., features a discrepancy in the Hungarian and English-language sections that suggests an intent to influence U.S. political thought.

Carl briefly served as a deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks for the U.S. Interior Department in 2020. During his time there, he cited an opinion article from the white nationalist outlet American Renaissance to denounce the “anti-discrimination work of former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.,” The Washington Post reported in 2020.

The English and Hungarian versions describe the scope of Carl’s work as conducting research and writing studies on the following topics: “Hungarian family support policy, with special regard to its connections with Hungarian immigration policy” and “How could the Orbán government tame the Hungarian deep state while keeping Brussels away?”

After naming the topics, the Hungarian-language side says, “These can serve as an example for the American right-wing.”

Rosenstein said that contracts are usually not “so explicit” as to name a political movement or ideology which the principal hopes to influence. He further wondered if this section’s removal was an attempt to circumvent FARA.

Your suggestion that there is something improper about having accepted a brief visiting fellowship to research topics entirely of my own choosing at a think tank headed by internationally-renowned [sic] conservative scholar are [sic] bizarre and delusional,” Carl told Hatewatch.

Carl did not respond to a follow-up question about whether he knew of the discrepancy in the English and Hungarian language sections of the contract. Nor did the DI respond to a request for comment about the discrepancy.

BLA paid Carl $7,000 for the work described in this contract, which ran from February to April 2022.

Carl had another contract with DI, which he signed on Oct. 29, that required him to give “two lectures, one on ‘freedom of expression’” and another on “educational policy” at events in November. The contract also required Carl to participate in DI’s podcasts, write at least one article for a BLA-administered website and appear in DI media. BLA paid Carl $8,500 for his work. Carl is not the Claremont Institute’s only connection to Hungary. David Reaboi, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the only right-wing U.S. figure who has registered as a Hungarian agent under FARA.

Photo illustration by SPLC (L-R Christopher Rufo, Jeremy Carl, Michael O'Shea)

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