The National Rifle Association is accusing its longtime public relations firm of “fomenting” an “executive coup” attempt, and the gun group is suing the agency for $40 million in damages, alleging a “total breach of contract” in the wake of what it calls “misleading, defamatory” leaks of confidential documents.
The lawsuit, filed in Virginia state court on Wednesday, is the latest salvo in the battle between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen, which has long crafted the gun group’s public image, including launching the streaming service NRATV. Ackerman McQueen’s services have recently cost the NRA upwards of $40 million a year.
The decades-long partnership began to sour last summer, in the wake of threats from regulators to challenge the NRA’s nonprofit status. Scrambling to get its finances in order, the NRA sought to audit Ackerman McQueen’s books. When the agency stonewalled instead of cooperating, the NRA sued for access to its financial records. This legal action precipitated a power struggle at the NRA’s annual convention in Indianapolis this April: The NRA’s ceremonial president Oliver North — employed by Ackerman McQueen to produce a show for NRATV — allegedly sought to oust longtime NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre by threatening to expose damaging information held by Ackerman McQueen about the gun group’s finances and spending. (For more background on the fights roiling the gun group, read: WTF Is Happening at the NRA, Explained.)
LaPierre survived the leadership challenge and North was turned out as president. But the NRA now accuses Ackerman McQueen of leaking sensitive documents in an effort to “deliver on AMc’s extortion threats.” Rolling Stone reported on these leaked documents, which were posted online anonymously last week. The internal memos and letters allege extravagant legal payments to the NRA’s outside legal counsel, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in luxury wardrobe and travel expenses by LaPierre.
The new NRA lawsuit alleges “a remarkable, material breach of that trust” by its PR firm, including a failed attempt to “wrest control of the NRA” by “fomenting” an “executive coup,” followed by “a campaign to tarnish and ultimately destroy the public image of the NRA and its senior leadership.”
According to the legal complaint, “the conspiracy led by AMc had a malicious, singular purpose: to derail inquiries by the NRA into AMc’s business and accounting practices.” The litigation asserts that “escalating salvos” over access to financial records “culminated in an extortion threat delivered by an employee, Lt. Col. Oliver North” timed to the NRA’s annual convention. “North’s directive to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was simple: withdraw the then-pending lawsuit against AMc, resign immediately from the NRA, and support AMc’s chosen leadership slate for the be publicly smeared,” the lawsuit says.
When the coup attempt “brutally failed,” the suit continues, “the NRA hoped that AMc and its co-conspirators would abandon their illegal conduct and resume faithfully serving the NRA.” Instead, according to the NRA, the “defendants began to deliver on AMc’s extortion threats” and “cynically leaked selected portions of confidential business records … to convey a misleading, dire picture of the finances, operations, and expense-accounting practices.”
The lawsuit lists the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Beast and Rolling Stone as “examples of media outlets to whom AMc directly or indirectly disclosed the NRA’s confidential information.” The NRA asserts that all of its controversial expenditures “were proper,” and that the PR firm knew this “full well” because “it was deeply involved in their incurrence.”
The gun group is suing Ackerman for breach of confidentiality agreements as well as a breach of a “duty of loyalty to the NRA which forbade it from misusing the NRA’s confidential information — especially with the malicious intent to damage the NRA.”
In addition to $40 million in damages, the NRA is seeking an injunction against Ackerman McQueen because its “breaches are escalating,” cautioning that “the NRA will be irreparably harmed” if the agency “continues to maliciously disseminate its confidential information.”
Oliver North did not respond to a request to comment. In a statement provided to Rolling Stone, an Ackerman McQueen spokesperson characterized the lawsuit as “another reckless attempt to scapegoat Ackerman McQueen for the NRA’s own breakdown in governance, compliance and leadership.” The spokesperson added: “We have done our job to protect the [NRA] brand for decades and have continued to do so despite shameless and inaccurate attacks on our integrity and our personnel by a leadership group that is desperate to make this a story about anything other than their own failures.”