ZioDave [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 17, 2019; New Yorker

In an excellent example of what can be established if a mainstream reporting publication pairs with a nonprofit single-issue news site, the New Yorker and the Trace, which is the Bloomberg-funded publication covering gun violence, have produced an investigative article about the National Rifle Association (NRA) that is flabbergasting.

Many readers know already that the NRA has managed to work itself into a financial hole through—we thought—overspending in the 2016 presidential election. Annual deficits ran as high as $40.9 million in 2017. But this article tells a more sordid story of self-dealing and a kind of mutually agreed upon hijacking of the organization’s strategies and stances by Ackerman McQueen, a vendor PR organization that the NRA paid $40 million directly or through affiliates in 2017. Ackerman McQueen is described as deeply involved in almost all aspects of the NRA.

Before this report came out, the whole NRA dynamic was confusing. As readers may recall, the organization has not just been losing money hand over fist, but also shedding members as their rhetoric has become increasingly extreme. As we wrote last year:

Although the National Rifle Association, a 501c4, increased its fees last year, it also experienced a 22 percent downturn in revenue from membership dues, according to its 2017 audited financial statements. This translates into a loss of membership, though the organization has recently boasted a membership of six million—up from “more than five million.” The audit was obtained by Open Secrets at the Center for Responsive Politics. That math eludes us, but much of what the NRA says and does doesn’t make a lot of sense.

What might have caused the organization to go so far astray, even from its own membership?

On NRATV, the organization’s programming network, the popular host Grant Stinchfield might appear in a “Socialist Tears” T-shirt, taking a sledgehammer to a television set cycling through liberal news shows. The platform’s Twitter account circulates videos of spokesperson Dana Loesch, a former Breitbart News editor who has said that mainstream journalists are “the rat bastards of the earth” and deserve to be “curb-stomped.” Over menacing images of masked rioters, she asserts that the only way to stop the left is to “fight its violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” A lawyer and activist called Colion Noir, whose real name is Collins Idehen, Jr., also has a large following. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, Noir appeared in a video chiding “all the kids from Parkland getting ready to use your First Amendment to attack everyone else’s Second Amendment.”

Loesch and Noir have become the primary public faces of the NRA.; at events, enormous banners feature their images alongside those of [executive vice president Wayne LaPierre] and Chris Cox, the organization’s top lobbyist. But Loesch and Noir are not technically employed by the NRA Instead, they are paid by Ackerman McQueen, a public relations firm based in Oklahoma. In at least one year, Loesch earned close to a million dollars, according to a source who has seen her contract.

At this point, it is unclear who has control of the message or speaks for the members. Ackerman also produces the NRA magazine America’s 1st Freedom. Even the NRA’s president, Oliver North, is paid through Ackerman at a rate of $1 million a year.

Marc Owens, former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division, says, “The litany of red flags is just extraordinary. The materials reflect one of the broadest arrays of likely transgressions that I’ve ever seen. There is a tremendous range of what appears to be the misuse of assets for the benefit of certain venders and people in control.” He suggests that the violations, if proven could, result in withdrawal of the organization’s tax-exempt status.

Internally, the NRA relationship to Ackerman has long been contentious, with many staffers over at least two decades questioning their depth and breadth and the cash price of the relationship which grew the contracts to Ackerman apace. As one example:

In 2010, Tyler Schropp, a former executive at the Mercury Group, was brought in to lead the NRA’s advancement team, a fund-raising group that targets wealthy members. As Schropp reshaped the department, he steered more business toward Ackerman McQueen; Davis recalled that the relationship “skyrocketed.”

Then, also in 2017, Ackerman and the NRA rolled out their latest collaborative brainstorm in Carry Guard, a program which gun control activists characterized as “murder insurance.” It was intended to be the financial salvation of the organization. Staff members again raised concerns but were ignored until the State of New York said no-go to the effort.

The article goes on to detail enormous payments being made to former staff members or staff who were crossing over employment from one related party to the next:

The memos frequently note a lack of transparency around questionable payments to individuals. Mike Marcellin worked at the NRA for almost twenty-three years. As a senior employee, he oversaw the organization’s relationship with Lockton Affinity, an insurance administrator that worked on Carry Guard and other NRA-branded insurance products. In 2016, Marcellin retired from the NRA and started a private consultancy. Although he had worked only the first few weeks of January, the organization paid him a full year’s salary—nearly six hundred and thirty thousand dollars, according to tax filings, mostly in the form of a bonus. During the same year, the memos reveal, Lockton paid him about four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The memos assert that “no one was aware” that Marcellin was receiving income from both organizations—a situation that should have been disclosed on the NRA’s 2016 tax filings. (The payment from Lockton was mentioned on the following year’s filing, with a note that it had been “inadvertently excluded” in 2016.)

Arrangements of this kind extend all the way the top of the NRA, where LaPierre’s contract “provides for consulting services and personal appearances upon the end of his employment, at an annual rate that starts at his currently contracted final base salary and is later reduced.”

In all, this investigation reveals an organization that has been playing fast and loose with the NRA and our culture in just about every way possible. The gun control network Everytown for Gun Violence has filed a complaint with the IRS asking for a full investigation even as President Trump and Vice President Pence are scheduled to speak at the NRA’s convention in Indianapolis next week.—Ruth McCambridge