Ackerman McQueen is biting the hand that feeds it. The longtime PR firm for the National Rifle Association is counter-suing the gun group for a staggering $100 million, alleging the NRA is dishonestly attempting to sever business ties — for the benefit of the gun group’s top-dollar legal firm.
The PR firm’s suit was filed Thursday in Virginia state court, just a day after the NRA sued Ackerman McQueen for $40 million, accusing the firm of “fomenting” an attempted coup and leaking confidential documents. The counterclaim sheds new light on the power struggle that has roiled the gun world. And it helps explain why the NRA’s outside counsel has been drawn into the firefight. (For more detailed background on the turmoil read “WTF Is Happening at the NRA, Explained.”)
Ackerman McQueen has shaped the NRA’s public image for decades — casting movie-Moses Charlton Heston as the group’s president, transforming longtime CEO Wayne LaPierre from a meek lobbyist into a culture warrior and producing everything from glossy magazines to the NRA’s massive annual conference that draws tens of thousands of attendees. The PR firm is also responsible for launching the gun group’s streaming service, NRATV, and shaping its extremist messaging. Ackerman McQueen’s billings have recently topped $40 million a year.
The first sign of acrimony came in April, when the NRA filed a lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen alleging the firm was not participating in an audit that was intended to prepare the NRA for regulatory scrutiny of the group’s non-profit status. That lawsuit, in turn, sparked a leadership struggle at the NRA’s national convention, in which LaPierre fended off a “coup” attempt, allegedly mounted by Ackerman McQueen and its highly-paid TV talent, Oliver North, who also served as the NRA’s president.
LaPierre won the short-term battle: North was forced to step down from his ceremonial post with the NRA. (North has not responded to repeated interview requests.) But a slate of documents, which the NRA alleges were leaked “maliciously” by Ackerman McQueen, has since cast a harsh light on the NRA’s spending. One set of leaked documents revealed LaPierre spent hundreds of thousands of member dollars on luxury suits and global travel. Other internal memos alleged the NRA has been squandering millions on excessive legal fees, spending as much as $100,000 a day on its law firm, Brewer Attorneys & Counselors.
The counterclaim by Ackerman McQueen accuses the NRA of filing its initial lawsuit in bad faith — asking the court to force the PR firm to produce financial records that the gun group already had in its possession, including Oliver North’s contract and viewership/analytics data for NRATV.
Why? The PR firm alleges that the NRA was creating a “pretext” to end its relationship with Ackerman McQueen “for cause,” so that the NRA could “avoid the payment of a very substantial amount of money in the form of severance and cancellation fees.”
At this stage in the soured relations between the NRA and Ackerman McQueen, it’s not surprising to learn that this business partnership is headed for a crackup. What is surprising is whom Ackerman McQueen claims stands to benefit: Brewer Attorneys & Counselors.
The lawsuit alleges that the “NRA’s use of this Court to falsely demand access to documents that it already possessed…was a pretext designed to cover the ulterior motive of the lawsuit — to cause damage to AMc’s reputation and facilitate the transfer of AMc’s business to Brewer’s control.”
In addition to being a top-dollar law firm, Brewer, it turns out, has developed a PR practice. As detailed on the firm’s website: “We formed one of the first in-house strategic communications practices within a national litigation firm. Today, this public relations and communications practice group advises clients on a broad array of reputational issues, political and regulatory concerns, and image-building opportunities.”
If the lawsuit is correct, then the fight between North and LaPierre at the NRA convention, in fact, represented a proxy battle between Ackerman McQueen and Brewer over the rights to millions in annual NRA image-building business. The conflict is personal as well as professional: The legal firm’s chief, William A. Brewer III, is the son-in-law of Ackerman McQueen co-CEO Angus McQueen.
Brewer, whom the new lawsuit describes as LaPierre’s “chosen attorney,” did not respond directly to questions about whether his law firm is attempting to take over the NRA’s lucrative PR portfolio. In a statement provided to Rolling Stone, Brewer described the litigation as “without merit” and as “a misguided attempt to deflect attention from Ackerman McQueen’s numerous failures to comply with its obligations.”
Brewer added, speaking for the gun group: “The NRA makes no apologies for holding Ackerman McQueen and all its vendors to a high standard — in the interest of its mission and the members it serves. The NRA remains undeterred in its efforts to follow best practices and hold vendors accountable: no exceptions.”
In its litigation, Ackerman McQueen is seeking $50 million in “actual and consequential damages arising from breach of contract,” and another $50 million in “punitive damages.