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The NRA Is in Disarray: Here’s What You Need to Know.

Over the past few months, story after story about the National Rifle Association (NRA) has spilled out into the public, painting a picture of an organization in disarray. On August 6, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed lawsuits against top leadership for fraud and moved to dissolve the NRA entirely.

This post outlines the numerous controversies, lawsuits, and investigations into the organization that have been reported recently, and which set the stage for today’s announcement by Attorney General James. As these examples demonstrate, the struggles of the NRA are incredibly deep-seated—and they’re far from over. We’ll update this post regularly as more information emerges.

Illegal Campaign Conduct

  • FEC complaints. 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]
  • Giffords lawsuit. The FEC has dragged its feet on addressing these allegations, so 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]

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Financial Woes

  • Big investment with few returns. Finances have long been a problem 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]
  • Excessive discretionary spending. News reports revealed that NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre charged more than $240,000 of travel expenses to the organization’s longtime ad agency, Ackerman McQueen, and that LaPierre received suits costing more than $200,000 purchased at an upscale clothing store in Beverly Hills, courtesy of Ackerman McQueen. [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 and underpaid employees. 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 by leadership. 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 area of concern was questionable transactions involving top NRA vendors and executives. [The New Yorker]
  • Investigation into misuse of charitable funds. In order to keep its finances steady, the NRA increasingly relied on cash infusions and other transactions from its foundation, with at least $206 million transferred in the last decade. This raised significant questions about whether that money was being used for charitable purposes, as required by law, and not to help finance the NRA’s political activities. [New York Times]
  • Conflicts of interest. The NRA’s charitable foundation also 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]
  • Reduced funding for core activities. 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]
  • Expensive litigation. 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 lead of the NY AG. The New York Attorney General has not been alone in investigating wrongdoing at the NRA: 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 as well. With the group spending $24 million in legal fees in 2018 and early 2019, 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]
  • Plans to buy Wayne LaPierre a mansion. Reports revealed that Wayne LaPierre feared for his life after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and determined that the solution was to have the NRA buy him a $6 million Dallas mansion, with Ackerman McQueen assisting in facilitating the transaction and maintaining the property after closing. While the deal ultimately fell through, had it not, the organization would have been a 99% owner of LaPierre’s residence. [The Wall Street Journal]
  • Expensive private flights. 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 LaPierre, as well as his wife and niece. [The Wall Street Journal]
  • Subpoenas issued to investigate suspected financial misconduct. 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 to the NRA.The recent subpoena provides a hint as to where the eight-month investigation might be headed. [The New York Times]
  • Over 60 layoffs. On March 22, the NRA announced that it “would be implementing a number of permanent and temporary staff reductions along with other cost-cutting measures” in response to the COVID-19 crisis. [Politico]
  • 20% employee pay cuts. One of the NRA’s cost cutting measures in response to the COVID crisis is having hourly workers cut back to four-day work weeks, and cutting salaried staffers’ pay by 20%. [NPR]
  • Exorbitant legal fees. In a brief filed in federal court, attorneys for Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s former ad agency, allege that the NRA has paid attorney William A. Brewer III and his law firm over $54 million in the past two years, contributing to the financial strain that led to layoffs. [The Trace]

Russian Ties

  • NRA delegation visits Moscow, sponsored by Russian gun group. 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]
  • Links to foreign espionage. The Moscow 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 2019 for failing to register as a foreign agent. [Washington Post]
  • Email evidence. 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]
  • Foreign 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]
  • Congressional investigation. In her plea deal, Butina stated her goal was to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics.” The FBI has reportedly looked into allegations that Torshin and other Russians may have funneled funds to the NRA as part of the $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]

Leadership Infighting

  • Concerns over inflammatory NRATV. In May of 2018, 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 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’s 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. Then, in an attempt to oust LaPierre, North accused him 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 in April 2019, 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 files suit against North. In the aftermath of the leadership struggle, the NRA 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 forced 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 sent a letter to NRA officials declaring their confidence in the organization’s leadership shattered. In return, on August 2, 2019, each was stripped of his committee position. [Washington Post]
  • More board member resignations. Former Oklahoma Congressman Dan Boren resigned his seat on the NRA board of directors. Boren, who has been implicated in a number of lawsuits, was the latest victim to fall in the ongoing battle between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen, and the eighth board member to resign between May and November 2019. [Newsweek]
  • Loss of major donors. Fed up with mismanagement among NRA leadership, legacy donors scaled back their pledges. Donors like Joe Olson, who committed to giving millions from his estate to the gun lobby, pulled their contributions as news of scandals inside the organization continue to pile up. [Associated Press]
  • Leadership exodus. An analysis by The Trace found that since April 2019, 21 people part of the NRA’s leadership—executives, board members, attorneys, and other staff—left the organization. [The Trace]
  • Expensive campaign to keep Wayne LaPierre in power. In a podcast episode released in July, the wife of an NRA employee described how he uses his position to lobby NRA members to vote for board candidates who are allied with Wayne LaPierre, including paying tens of thousands of dollars each year for volunteers to be flown to the NRA convention to encourage members to back LaPierre’s favored board candidates. [The Trace]

NRA v. Ackerman McQueen

  • Lawsuit over Ackerman McQueen’s financial records. The NRA responded to Attorney General James’s initial investigation by asking for the financial records of its contractors, including Ackerman McQueen. According to the NRA, the firm refused to turn over financial documents. In April 2019, the NRA sued Ackerman McQueen, accusing the firm of concealing details of how it used the $40 million it received annually from the NRA. [New York Times]
  • Lawsuit over NRA’s public image. After Ackerman McQueen-linked NRA President Oliver North attempted a coup within the NRA and allegedly attempted to extort Wayne LaPierre (see Leadership Infighting above), 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]
  • Ackerman McQueen’s countersuit. 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]
  • NRATV cancelled. In June 2019, 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]

Additional Controversies

  • Top lobbyist faces ethics investigation. In July, NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer faced a hearing before the Florida Commission on Ethics about hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from the NRA, which she failed to disclose for over a decade on her required lobbyist compensation reports. [The Florida Bulldog]
  • “Murder Insurance” lawsuit. The New York State Department of Financial Services alleges that the NRA engaged in the unlicensed sale of insurance in New York and violated laws against deceptive marketing when advertising its Carry Guard insurance program, which claimed to cover criminal defense costs, an insurance service which is illegal in New York. [The Trace]

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