Updated December 10, 2019.
Over the past few months, stories about the National Rifle Association (NRA) have spilled into the light of day, painting a picture of an organization in disarray.
For the first time in memory, the NRA seems to be teetering on the brink, hemorrhaging both money and support. How did we get here? The trail is long and full of infighting, flirting with foreign governments, and cuts to the office coffee budget.
As we learn more, we’ll continuously update this document so we can all make sense of the extent of the NRA’s disarray.
Illegal Campaign Conduct
- Complaints department. According to a broad range of election and advertising records, the NRA appears to have illegally coordinated with multiple political campaigns—violating federal law that prevents independent groups from synchronizing their efforts with campaigns. Four complaints filed at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Giffords accused the NRA of illegally coordinating with the campaigns of multiple GOP senate candidates in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 election cycles. [The Trace]
- Shell companies and Trump. Giffords and CLC also filed FEC complaints documenting illegal campaign coordination involving the NRA and the Trump presidential campaign. The group spent $25 million, mostly on television ads, through the same companies—and often the same executives—who placed spots for the Trump campaign, violating well-established campaign finance laws. [HuffPost]
- We’ll see you in court. The FEC has dragged its feet on addressing these allegations, so in April, Giffords and CLC sought to compel the agency to investigate these millions of dollars in illegal, unreported, and excessive in-kind contributions by filing a lawsuit against the FEC. The suit is still pending. [ABC News]
- From Russia with love. In 2015, a Russian gun rights group, Right to Bear Arms, sponsored an NRA delegation to visit Moscow. Present on the trip were former NRA President David Keene, soon-to-be-president Peter Brownell, Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, NRA donors Jim Gregory and Arnold and Hilary Goldschlager, and Jim Liberatore, the president and CEO of the Outdoor Channel. [The Daily Beast]
- Spy games. The trip was organized by Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician who ran Right to Bear Arms, and Maria Butina, a Russian gun rights activist who was sentenced in April for failing to register as a foreign agent. [Washington Post]
- But the emails. The trip involved NRA executives meeting with senior Kremlin officials. In the years since the visit, the NRA has attempted to distance itself from the visit and the group’s ties to Russia. However, uncovered emails revealed that NRA employees worked directly with Butina to coordinate travel arrangements. [ABC News]
- Grassroots donors. Though they deny the funds were used for election activity, the NRA admitted to the Senate Finance Committee that it had received roughly $2,500 “from people with Russian addresses” or Russian nationals living in the US during the 2016 cycle. [New York Times]
- This is a case for the FBI. In her plea deal, Butina stated her goal was to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics.” Questions have been raised after it was reported that the FBI was looking into allegations that Torshin and other Russians may have funneled funds to the NRA as part of the group’s $30 million it spent to support Trump’s election. Since these revelations, congressional investigators have begun investigating the full extent of the relationship between the NRA and Moscow. [The Guardian]
- Big investment, little to show for it. Finances have long been a sore spot for the NRA as their returns on investment continue to flounder. Despite spending $9.6 million on lobbying Congress over the last two years, the top five bills that the organization identified as legislative priorities were not signed into law. [Bloomberg]
- Shopping sprees. Wayne LaPierre’s travel agent and tailor had more success than the NRA. This past May, news reports revealed that the NRA’s CEO charged more than $240,000 to the organization’s ad agency for travel expenses and that LaPierre received suits costing more than $200,000 from an upscale clothing store in Beverly Hills, courtesy of Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s longtime ad agency. [The Wall Street Journal]
- Leadership payouts. Wayne LaPierre wasn’t the only NRA executive benefiting from large payouts from the organization. About one-quarter of the NRA board, a body that is supposed to be unpaid, collected money from the group through various contracts and agreements that have little to do with the NRA’s core mission. [The Washington Post]
- Frozen pensions. Meanwhile, employees at the NRA got the short end of the stick. Compared to the seven-figure salary of Wayne LaPierre, rank-and-file staffers have been paid below market rate and had their pensions frozen in 2018. [NPR]
- Questionable transactions. The egregious spending doesn’t stop there. In July of 2018, NRA accountants put together a document detailing issues that needed to be addressed by the association’s audit committee. The main culprit? Questionable transactions involving top NRA vendors and executives. [The New Yorker]
- Lawsuits abound. The Attorney General of New York began investigating potential violations of law related to charitable institutions. In order to keep its finances steady, the NRA increasingly relied on cash infusions and other transactions from its foundation. Since 2010, at least $206 million was transferred. [New York Times]
- Funneling to charities. The NRA’s charity foundation made undisclosed donations to a Northern Virginia organization called Youth for Tomorrow, of which Wayne LaPierre’s wife is a former president and current board member—raising questions about the group’s failure to disclose the donations and possible conflicts of interest. [The New Yorker]
- Taking the R out of NRA. Despite the fact that the NRA is an organization founded on the values of responsible gun ownership, the NRA’s financial woes have forced it to cut funds for gun training. From 2017 to 2018, allocations for safety and marksmanship dropped from $42.6 million to $32.7 million. [Washington Post]
- NRA says woe is me. A lawsuit the NRA filed against the State of New York has come attached with a heavy price tag. In a fundraising letter sent to members, LaPierre warned that efforts by New York insurance regulators that stopped the NRA from illegally selling insurance could shut down the group “very soon.” In court filings, the NRA claimed to have “suffered tens of millions of dollars in damages” as a result of the insurance regulators’ enforcement actions. [The Daily Beast]
- DC AG follows New York’s suit. It was recently reported that the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia issued subpoenas to the NRA to determine if the group violated DC’s nonprofit act. With the group spending $24 million last year in legal fees, and ending 2018 $10.8 million in the red, it’s not clear if the organization’s financial troubles will let up any time soon. [Washington Post]
- Hiding in his mansion. Recent reporting revealed that Wayne LaPierre feared for his life after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. His solution to stay safe involved having the NRA buy him a $6 million Dallas mansion, with Ackerman McQueen assisting in facilitating the transition and maintaining the property after closing. Had the deal gone through, the organization would have been a 99% owner of the property. [The Wall Street Journal]
- Wayne LaPierre flies ConAir. While most nonprofit executives fly commercial, for years Wayne LaPierre employed a California travel agent to book his private flights. Through a complicated financial web of retainer payments and Ackerman McQueen reimbursements, Gayle Sanford, an unregistered travel agent who was accused in a 2009 lawsuit of defrauding small-business owners out of money, arranged travel for Mr. LaPierre, as well as his wife and niece. [The Wall Street Journal]
- The NRA’s accountants work hard, but Letitia James works harder. New York Attorney General James continues to root out the secrets in the NRA’s cabinets. In a newly issued subpoena, the AG is examining at least four dubious practices of the group, involving campaign finance, payments made to board members, and tax compliance. Tax experts raised concerns based on the NRA’s recent tax filings showing the diversion of $36 million from the NRA Foundation into the NRA.The recent subpoena is giving a hint as to where the eight-month investigation might be headed. [The New York Times]
- Inflammatory NRATV. In May of last year, the NRA named Oliver North as the new president of the organization. North’s appointment came two years after the debut of NRATV, created by Ackerman McQueen, the ad firm that has worked with the NRA for more than 40 years. The new channel began to worry longtime NRA allies and employees with its increasingly inflammatory rhetoric —including depictions of Thomas the Tank Engine, the children’s cartoon character, in a Ku Klux Klan hood. [New York Times]
- Oliver North stages another coup. North used his position as president, typically a ceremonial role, to align himself with Ackerman McQueen. North was paid millions of dollars to work for the firm. In an attempt to oust LaPierre, North accused the NRA CEO of mishandling NRA funds and threatened to go to the board with incriminating information. [HuffPost]
- LaPierre fires back. LaPierre reacted to North’s coup attempt by writing a letter to the NRA’s board informing them of North’s effort to remove him as chief executive of the association. He accused North of being more loyal to Ackerman McQueen than the NRA, suggesting the extortion attempt was a form of payback for the lawsuit the NRA filed against them. [Rolling Stone]
- LaPierre prevails. LaPierre won the power struggle and Oliver North resigned as president. In a letter read at the NRA’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, North said he believed the NRA should establish a committee to review the group’s finances, which constitute a “clear crisis” that “needs to be dealt with. [Washington Post]
- NRA adds insult to injury. And the NRA still isn’t done with North. They recently filed a lawsuit in New York against North over the failed takeover and his secret fiduciary relationship with Ackerman McQueen, stating “simply put, the NRA exists to fight for the Second Amendment—not pay other people’s bills.” [Courthouse News]
- Chris Cox out. Longtime NRA lobbyist Chris Cox didn’t escape the infighting unscathed. The NRA forced Cox out after ending its relationship with Ackerman McQueen. It turns out Cox picked the losing side in the power struggle. He resigned from his post when a lawsuit against Oliver North revealed that Cox participated in the attempt to oust LaPierre. [The New York Times]
- LaPierre quashes dissent. Three NRA board members recently decided enough was enough. Fed up with mismanagement and negligence the trio sent a letter to NRA officials declaring their confidence in the organization’s leadership shattered. Their reward? On August 2, 2019, each was stripped of their committee positions. [Washington Post]
- Jumping ship. Former Oklahoma Congressman Dan Boren resigned his seat on the NRA board of directors. Boren, who has been implicated in a number of lawsuits, is the latest victim to fall in the ongoing battle between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen, and is the eighth board member to resign since May. [Newsweek]
- The gravy train derails. Fed up with mismanagement among NRA leadership, legacy donors are scaling back their pledges. Donors like Joe Olson, who committed to giving millions from his estate to the gun lobby, are pulling their contributions as news of scandals inside the organization continue to pile up. [Associated Press]
NRA v. Ackerman McQueen
- Charity? After The Trace and the New Yorker reported on the lavish spending habits of NRA executives, the Attorney General of New York, where the NRA is chartered, launched an investigation into the group’s tax exempt status (see Financial Woes). [CNN]
- Ackerman McQueen plays hardball. The investigation led the NRA to ask for the financial records of its contractors, including Ackerman MacQueen. According to the NRA, the firm refused to turn over financial documents. In April, the NRA sued Ackerman McQueen, accusing the firm of concealing details of how it uses the $40 million it receives annually from the NRA. [New York Times]
- NRA tries to save face. After Ackerman McQueen-linked NRA President Oliver North attempted a coup within the NRA and allegedly attempted to extort Wayne LaPierre (see Leadership Infighting), the NRA filed a separate lawsuit claiming the advertising firm worked “to tarnish and ultimately destroy the public image of the NRA and its senior leadership.” [The Daily Beast]
- You sue? I sue. Ackerman McQueen countersued the NRA for $50 million. The firm claimed it had already given the NRA sufficient access to its financial records and that the NRA only brought the initial lawsuit in order to find cause to terminate its contract with Ackerman McQueen. [The Daily Beast]
- Off the air. In June, the NRA cleaned house—ending its relationship with Ackerman McQueen and shutting down NRATV, thus ending the contract of NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch. [The New York Times]
As you can see, the struggles of the NRA are incredibly deep-seated—and they’re far from over.
It seems each week there’s more information released about how an organization originally founded to promote sport shooting has shifted into a political monstrosity, where incendiary rhetoric and internal backstabbing take priority over protecting the Second Amendment.