Chaos broke out at the NRA’s annual convention in Indianapolis last week. The gun group’s figurehead president, Oliver North, backed by its longtime PR firm Ackerman McQueen, allegedly tried to oust the NRA’s powerful CEO, Wayne LaPierre. But LaPierre hit back — forcing North to step down, while winning unanimous reelection by the NRA board.
As this Game of Thrones-worthy infighting played out, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced she has opened an investigation into the NRA’s financial practices — amid public accusations that NRA executives and contractors have been feathering their nests with donor dollars — raising the possibility that the association’s non-profit status could be revoked.
Below, we tease out this hot mess at the NRA:
The gun lobby spent $30 million in the 2016 election to boost Trump — more than twice what it spent on Mitt Romney in 2012. The go-for-broke investment paid off in a president who praises gun rights at every turn and appointed two arch-conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
But these victories have come at a deep cost for the NRA. It has lost the boogeyman of a Democratic president,and the cashflow that’s boosted by convincing gun owners that their rights are under siege. The NRA remains under Senate scrutiny for its associations with Russia in the runup to 2016. And the gun group is finally paying a price for evangelizing assault weapons, as the moral authority of the Parkland teens, and a nation repulsed by active-shooter drills at their kids’ schools, has elevated the anti-gun-violence movement into a political counterweight.
The NRA has been hemorrhaging money — losing more than $45 million in 2016 and another $17 million in 2017 — leading the organization to cut back on everything from office coffee to electioneering: The NRA was outspent by gun-control groups in the 2018 midterm elections.
Ackerman McQueen is the NRA’s top PR firm and has crafted the gun group’s public image for nearly four decades, famously casting Planet of the Apes actor Charlton Heston as NRA president. Heston declared in 2000 that gun control opponents would have to rip a rifle “from my cold, dead hands.”
In recent years, Ackerman’s NRA campaigns have centered on the apocalyptic — stoking the fear that gooses gun sales, by warning of race war and social collapse and a government that either can’t defend its citizens or is itself a tyrannical threat. As part of this effort, Ackerman launched NRATV — turning spokeswoman Dana Loesch into a national force — but with video content that often veers into outré culture war fights, including depicting Thomas the Tank Engine characters in KKK hoods.
Ackerman has long held a reputation as the tail that wags the dog at the NRA. But as its media operations have grown, Ackerman has begun to resemble a snake that’s trying to swallow the NRA whole. By 2017, the NRA was paying the firm and its affiliates “nearly $40 million annually,” according to LaPierre — more than it spent to elect Trump.
LaPierre is the NRA’s longtime, highly paid executive vice president and CEO. LaPierre earns $1.4 million a year, according to the NRA’s latest tax filing. Ackerman gets credit for transforming LaPierre’s public persona from a meek manager into a fire-breathing zealot. But LaPierre comes by his survival instincts honestly, riding out dozens of controversies since taking the reins at the NRA in 1991.
North, infamous for his role in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal, took over the NRA’s presidency just last year. (His predecessor, the gun executive Pete Brownell, chose not to stand for reelection, after the NRA junket he’d led to Russia in 2015 came under scrutiny by Congress.) As North took on the ceremonial mantle at the NRA, he also scored a huge deal with Ackerman to produce content for NRATV that paid him “millions of dollars annually,” according to LaPierre.
William Brewer, III
Brewer is the NRA’s top-dollar outside counsel. Adding family drama to the turf battles between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen, Brewer’s father-in-law is Angus McQueen, co-CEO of the publicity firm.
The anti-gun-violence group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
Everytown for Gun Safety
The anti-gun-violence group funded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The attorney general of New York, where the NRA is chartered, who campaigned on investigating the NRA’s non-profit status.
The governor of New York, whom the NRA sued after he officially encouraged financial institutions not to do business with the NRA.
Elected in 2016 with the help of an unprecedented $30 million in NRA spending.
The ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, who has been investigating the NRA’s ties to Russia.
NRA vs. Ackerman McQueen
A bitter feud between the NRA and its PR firm burst into public view in mid-April, when the NRA sued Ackerman McQueen (AMc) in state court in Virginia for having “flagrantly disregarded its contractual obligations.”
The lawsuit came after years of growing tension inside the NRA about its dependence on AMc, a conflict that came to a head after AMc refused to cooperate in the audit the NRA launched to get ahead of a potential Letitia James investigation.
The suit alleges that AMc’s opaque billing practices bled millions from the NRA without proper documentation. The NRA hits AMc for a “lack of transparency” in annual budgets and raises “concerns that AMc was invoicing the NRA for the entire salaries” of personnel who worked for “non-NRA clients.”
Much of the conflict centers on NRATV. The NRA writes that the “trust and confidence it placed in AMc led the NRA to invest in an expanding suite of services which were — according to AMc’s assurances — fairly priced. For example, the NRA agreed to experiment with an ‘owned media company,’ NRATV, a concept fervently pitched by AMc.” But it claims the firm has refused to provide basic metrics (“such as unique visitors, viewership numbers, clickthrough rates”) needed for the NRA to “analyze the return on its investment in NRATV.” The lawsuit also complains that NRATV strayed into “topics far afield of the Second Amendment,” claiming AMc had “deviated from the NRA’s core mission and values.”
The NRA insists its own go-to PR firm has been withholding information that is “material to the NRA’s not-for-profit governance and its stewardship of members’ donations.” The legal complaint concludes with striking language that the NRA’s “compliance with not-for-profit law cannot be permitted to be held hostage by a recalcitrant advertising agency.”
Reached by Rolling Stone and asked to respond to the lawsuit and other allegations of malfeasance, an Ackerman McQueen spokesperson said: “No comment. No comment. No comment.” The agency has released a statement calling the NRA suit “frivolous, inaccurate and intended to cause harm to the reputation of our company,” adding: “We will defend our position and performance aggressively and look forward to continuing to serve the NRA’s membership.”
Wayne LaPierre vs. Oliver North
The fight between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen has spilled over into a proxy battle between LaPierre and North.
Chief among the NRA’s complaints is that North has been paid millions by Ackerman McQueen for an NRATV documentary series American Heroes that North has largely failed to deliver on. North, who was previously paid by Fox News, was pulled away from that gig with the promise of a rich payday at Ackerman McQueen. But AMc — in an odd fit of opacity — refused to reveal to the NRA exactly what North’s financial relationship was with the firm, according the the NRA’s lawsuit, despite the NRA ultimately footing the bill.
Long story short: The NRA didn’t know how much it was paying its own president.
This dispute over North’s pay presaged the power struggle last week at the NRA convention. On April 25th, LaPierre wrote a letter to the NRA’s board warning that North and Ackerman McQueen were trying to oust him. LaPierre wrote that Ackerman was threatening to reveal “a devastating account of our financial status” as well as a litany of misbehavior by NRA officials. According to LaPierre, North used “extortionist” tactics, offering to keep those explosive claims under wraps if LaPierre stepped down and accepted a plush retirement package. (Messages left for North seeking his side of the story have not been returned.)
LaPierre framed the North/Ackerman McQueen threats as payback for the NRA’s lawsuit, and suggested North, himself, was compromised:
I will not judge Col. North, but must report what many of you already know: he has contractual and financial loyalties to AM. Last year, he entered into an employment agreement with the agency that pays him millions of dollars annually, supposedly in exchange for hosting an NRATV documentary series, ‘American Heroes.’ AM bargained to deliver twelve feature-length episodes of American Heroes within the series’ first year. That period expires next month, and AM has delivered only three episodes (the latest is a mere 11 minutes in length). The NRA wrote a recent letter demanding to know what, exactly it is paying for—and what it is getting—in light of these production shortfalls. AM did not respond directly, but appears to have responded indirectly by trying to oust me.
In short order, LaPierre won the faceoff against North. In a statement, read to the NRA convention on North’s behalf, North wrote: “I hoped to be with you today as NRA president, endorsed for reelection. I am now informed that that will not happen.” But North got in some last licks: “There is a clear crisis that needs to be dealt with immediately.” Citing reports of financial mismanagement by senior NRA officers, he warned: ”If true, the NRA’s non-profit status is threatened.”
NRA brass vs. NRA members
The roiling battle between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen has breathed life into concerns that top executives and contractors for the gun lobby are living high on the hog — misusing the dues of members for personal gain.
The Wall Street Journal reports that North had previously blown the whistle to the NRA board, alleging that LaPierre purchased more than $200,000 in clothing he’d billed to “a vendor.” (“Many of the issues raised by Col. North have been the subject of review and investigation by the NRA since early last year,” NRA lawyer Brewer said in a statement. “In our view, the items involving Mr. LaPierre may reflect a misinformed view of his and the NRA’s commitment to good governance.”) In addition, the Journal has reported allegations that LaPierre billed more than $240,000 in travel, to places like Italy and the Bahamas, to an Ackerman McQueen credit card.
But LaPierre’s natty suits and luxury travel habits may be just the tip of a much larger iceberg. A recent joint investigation published by the New Yorker and The Trace, drawing on internal documents, tax records and interviews, reported that “a small group of NRA executives, contractors and vendors has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements.” The exposé quotes former IRS director Marc Owens saying, “The litany of red flags is just extraordinary.”
Even as executives have gotten rich, the NRA’s finances have descended into a precarious state. An analysis of the group’s financial records for the last 11 years by Ohio State professor Brian Mittendorf found that the NRA owed more money than it had available to spend in seven of those years. The Trace reported that the group had nearly exhausted a $25-million credit line, according to a 2017 audit. Last year, NRA leadership froze its employees’ pensions.
NRA vs. Andrew Cuomo
The NRA’s money troubles are exacerbated by regulatory actions in New York. The state’s insurance regulator blocked the gun lobby from selling an NRA-branded insurance policy called Carry Guard that would pay for the legal consequences of shooting another person. Critics called it “murder insurance.” (In another case of potential misfeasance, an NRA executive was allegedly paid handsomely by both the NRA and by Lockton Affinity, the issuer of the insurance product.)
Last year the NRA sued Governor Cuomo, alleging that his bias against the gun lobby sparked the crackdown on its lucrative insurance business. It further argued that Cuomo had improperly used his authority in asking financial firms to reconsider doing business with the NRA, citing the risk of reputational harm. The NRA warned that the effective blacklisting by the governor could leave the NRA “unable to exist.” In a recent filing in the case, the NRA writes: “The crux of this case involves allegations that the [state] selectively wielded its powers to advance a political vendetta against the NRA.”
For his part, Cuomo makes no apologies, saying recently: “I’ve been at loggerheads with the NRA for about 20 years, for very good reasons…. They have been a destructive force in this country.”
Ackerman McQueen vs. William Brewer, III
While the NRA is fighting this pitched battle against the state of New York, others in the gun lobby’s orbit are concerned that the NRA’s law firm is just another outside group taking dues payers for a ride. In his exit letter, Oliver North said many NRA board members were concerned “about the amount of money the NRA was paying to the Brewer law firm” but that when they’d tried to surface those concerns: “We were rebuffed repeatedly.”
Brewer, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, defended his billings: “We’re a premium law firm, we make no bones about that.” The firm did not respond to a Rolling Stone question on the matter.
The dispute over Brewer’s billing is also complicated by bad blood between the lawyer and Ackerman McQueen. Brewer is the son-in-law of the co-CEO Angus McQueen and brother-in-law to another executive. In a statement, Ackerman McQueen writes that Brewer has an “irreconcilable” conflict of interest: “Mr. Brewer is the son-in-law of Angus McQueen and brother-in-law of Ackerman McQueen’s CEO, Revan McQueen. Mr. Brewer has demonstrated, in words and deeds, his animus for Ackerman McQueen and these family members and that animus pervades the Brewer firm’s dealings with Ackerman McQueen…”
Everytown For Gun Safety vs. NRA
Everytown For Gun Safety has filed a complaint to the IRS asking federal tax authorities to investigate whether the NRA’s nonprofit tax status — 501(c)(4) under the tax code — should be revoked: “We call on the IRS to commence an investigation into whether (i) the NRA has violated the federal laws governing 501(c)(4) charitable organizations, and (ii) if so, consider what remedies are warranted, including potential revocation of the NRA’s 501(c)(4) status.”
Giffords vs. NRA
Giffords and the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan election watchdog, recently sued the Federal Election Commission for failing to act on allegations the NRA had violated campaign laws. The FEC — a famously gridlocked regulator that is currently missing two of its six commissioners — has yet to act multiple complaints alleging the NRA used shell companies to illegally coordinate its ad spending with congressional candidates as well as Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The problem, according to the Giffords suit? The NRA made “millions of dollars of illegal, unreported, and excessive in-kind contributions, including up to $25 million in illegal contributions to now President Donald J. Trump.”
Letitia James vs. NRA
In her bid to become New York’s attorney general, James campaigned last year on a vow to review the NRA’s non-profit charter: “I will use the constitutional power as an attorney general to regulate charities, that includes the NRA, to investigate their legitimacy.”
A recent statement provided by a spokesperson for the AG reveals that an investigation into the NRA has now begun: “The Office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James has launched an investigation related to the National Rifle Association (NRA). As part of this investigation, the Attorney General has issued subpoenas.”
The NRA is attempting to project calm in the face of a potentially existential threat. “The NRA will fully cooperate with any inquiry into its finances,” Brewer said in a statement. “The NRA is prepared for this, and has full confidence in its accounting practices and commitment to good governance.”
Ron Wyden vs. NRA
Maria Butina was recently sentenced to 18 months for her plot to infiltrate the NRA and open a conduit between the Kremlin and Trump World. Butina infamously invited a cohort from the NRA to Moscow in late 2015, treating the gun lobby guests to extravagant meals and introducing NRA brass to top figures in Vladimir Putin’s government.
In a recent interview, Rolling Stone asked Sen. Wyden about his investigation into the NRA’s Russian ties, including the possibility that Russian funds had helped boost NRA spending on Trump’s behalf. Wyden would not speak to the specifics of his investigation. But the senator volunteered that he thought the NRA’s attempts to distance itself from that Moscow junket — suggesting it was not an official trip — were risible. “What the NRA had to say, in their changing story about how they weren’t involved in this official trip, I don’t think that passes the smell test,” Wyden said. “It’s not credible.”
As to his broader inquiry, Wyden would say only: “We’ll have some more to say before too long.”
As the shit hit the fan at the NRA convention, our extremely online president attempted to run interference on Twitter, painting the gun lobby as the victim of a liberal New York government run amok.
The NRA is under siege by Cuomo and the New York State A.G., who are illegally using the State’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization, & others. It must get its act together quickly, stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS – FAST!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 29, 2019
Trump even suggested the NRA uproot itself from the state where it was first chartered in 1871:
….People are fleeing New York State because of high taxes and yes, even oppression of sorts. They didn’t even put up a fight against SALT – could have won. So much litigation. The NRA should leave and fight from the outside of this very difficult to deal with (unfair) State!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 29, 2019
James’ office has released a statement in response to Trump’s tirade: “Attorney General Letitia James is focused on enforcing the rule of law. In any case we pursue, we will follow the facts wherever they may lead. We wish the President would share our respect for the law.” Governor Cuomo weighed in too, insisting that: “The President’s accusation that it is politically motivated is all garbage.”
Meanwhile, the shoes keep dropping. The senator from Oregon has expanded the scope of his investigation:
America doesn’t give nonprofits a break to let board members and officials get rich at the taxpayers’ expense. I’ll be asking the NRA to provide documents reported in the press that allegedly demonstrate NRA officials abused the group’s resources. https://t.co/MnD1Eh4ZQ6
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) April 30, 2019
Amid the myriad scandals rocking the NRA this much is clear. The association stands at one of the gravest moments of peril in its nearly 150 year history — presenting a rare opportunity for the gun lobby’s opponents to kick it while it’s down.