The NRA’s Internal Disputes Explode Into the Public Light, Oliver North Departs

NRA executive vp and CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks at the NRA annual meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., April 26, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Indianapolis, Ind. – A long-simmering dispute between NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and now-departing NRA president Oliver North exploded into the open Friday night, as the NRA’s Board of Directors suddenly forced to confront public accusations and counter-accusations of financial mismanagement, attempts at extortion, and unjustifiable expenditures by their primary public relations firm. By Saturday morning, it was clear who won.

This morning, at the NRA’s public meeting of members, member Richard Childress read a letter from North announcing he would not seek another term as the NRA’s president. His term ends Monday.

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The NRA is currently suing their public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, over access to documents detailing how the firm spent the NRA’s money. In recent years, NRA board members grew increasingly concerned about whether they were getting their money’s worth from their long time advertising and PR firm; according to financial documents cited in The New Yorker, the NRA paid Ackerman McQueen just under $41 million in 2017.

Further complicating the matter is that North has a contract with Ackerman McQueen to produce a television series “Oliver North’s American Heroes.” LaPierre accuses North of attempting to oust him in order to protect Ackerman McQueen.

North had sent a letter to the NRA board contending that the NRA had paid for, through a vendor, more than $200,000 of wardrobe purchases by LaPierre, according to the Wall Street Journal. LaPierre responded with his own letter, contending North had threatened to disclose embarrassing information about him and the organization, and that others within the NRA had communicated that the embarrassing information wouldn’t be disclosed if the NRA dropped the lawsuit against Ackerman.

North was not at the public NRA member’s meeting this morning; LaPierre was. Childress read a letter from North, citing recent reports in the New York Times and The New Yorker about financial improprieties and declaring, “if true, the NRA’s nonprofit status is threatened.”

“There’s some housekeeping that needs to be taken care of,” Childress said after reading North’s letter. But then the meeting shifted to the traditional recognition of the youngest and oldest lifetime NRA members in attendance and the usual, noncontroversial business.

The NRA board is in Indianapolis for its annual meeting this weekend, and will formally meet in private Monday, although there are rumors that the board may meet behind closed doors before then. As of this writing, few have any clear sense of whether the NRA’s relationship with Ackerman McQueen will continue. Giant posters of LaPierre and North are still hanging all around the Indianapolis Convention Center.

The dispute may seem like inside baseball, but the ramifications could be serious. The NRA is incorporated in New York state, and state attorney general Letitia James has “repeatedly threatened to investigate the tax-exempt status of the organization.” Most states give their attorney generals broad authority to investigate the finances of nonprofit organizations and New York is no exception. James’ predecessor, Barbara Underwood, pursued allegations of financial impropriety at the Trump Foundation and in December, the Trump Foundation agreed to dissolve and distribute its remaining assets to other charities.

Nor does the NRA have a simple option of dissolving its charter in New York and then reopening in another state with a less hostile state attorney general. New York state regulators would have to approve the move, and they are unlikely to simply sign off on an organization under investigation closing up shop and moving to another state.

Shortly before getting elected, James argued, “The NRA holds [itself] out as a charitable organization, but in fact, [it] really [is] a terrorist organization.” Under normal circumstances, an accused organization’s best defense may be that the state official seeking to investigate them has already made comments like this, suggesting a political vendetta. But persuasively arguing that the whole investigation is driven by politics is more difficult when the organization’s own leadership is trading letters accusing each other of inappropriate expenditures.

As noted yesterday, the NRA played a key role in driving turnout of pro-Trump women in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. The Trump team must be hoping that the NRA is operating on all cylinders in 2020 – and not hindered by expensive and embarrassing litigation.

UPDATE: Later in the meeting, Wayne LaPierre discussed the NRA’s lawsuit against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, charging that the governor and top members of his administration abused their authority over banks and financial institutions to discourage the banks from doing business with the NRA. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the NRA’s position, contending “targeting a nonprofit advocacy group and seeking to deny it financial services because it promotes a lawful activity violates the First Amendment.”

LaPierre then segued to discussing New York state attorney general James, mentioning her pre-election claim that the NRA is a “terrorist organization” and accusing her of readying a “taxpayer-funded fishing expedition… a contrived political investigation.”

There may be something worth investigating in the NRA’s finances, but James’ animosity towards the group is so obvious that she’s one of the worst people in the country to lead the investigation.

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